India now lags only Canada and Norway in the level of maternity benefits such as paid time off work extended to women. India’s statutory maternity leave is now the third best in the world and is certainly something to be proud of. However, the law is no assurance that the situation of working women will improve . For that to happen, the amended Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, needs to be implemented in letter and spirit. Measures such as allowing working women up to 26 weeks of maternity leave, ensuring employers provide crèche facilities and allowing a woman to work from home will help new mothers remain productive workers, even if they do not have a full-time support system to help raise the child. Keeping women in the workforce is beneficial for employers and for women. Improved retention of women will narrow the skills gap in many sectors and lower costs of training. It will also be a substantive contribution to women’s empowerment, as financial independence — or at least being financially productive — contributes greatly to strengthening women’s voices in decision making.
That said, this amendment will only benefit women in the organised sector — employed either by the government and its departments or by the corporate sector. They constitute just about 12.1 per cent of all employed women. The rest are in the informal sector — such as shops, small service providers and cottage industries, in households as domestic helps or as daily wage earners, in sectors such as agriculture and construction. This amendment does not address the need to provide such working women with some sort of safety net when they are nursing a new born. Most of them anyway do not earn even the notified minimum income, and that makes them more financially vulnerable. Given their precarious financial positions, many return to work sooner than they should, endangering their own and the infant’s health. Governments — States and the Centre — need to address the concerns of this large population of women.
The amended Act is undoubtedly well intentioned but execution will be key. Attitudinal change is critical. At present, even though the law provides for three months of maternity leave, many employers in the corporate sector deny women the full benefit by either not paying in full or by excluding benefits other than basic pay. Others avoid appointing women in critical functions out of an unwillingness to cope with women’s life cycle changes, even seeking undertakings on avoiding pregnancy. Changing this cannot be achieved through legislation alone.