On the day the India's upper house passed the Maternity Leave (Amendment) Bill, 2016, raising the maternity leave for working women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, 28-year-old Ekta’s manager at the multi-national she is working with reminded her of the “favour” the company was doing by letting her remain away from work for six months.
Ekta is a new mother, and has been away from the workplace for six months now. While she was given paid leave for the first three months, and a one-month extension later, she will not be paid for the last two months.
Her request to work from home has been declined.
Taunts that she was drawing her salary for free, and dipping ratings despite putting in the same amount of work, have not yet managed to break her spirit. “I know the Bill will not help me, but I am glad that the government will formalise this,” she said.
Yet, on Thursday, as the Rajya Sabha deliberated over the Bill, most women legislatures of the House gave the discussion a miss. Women lawmakers, including former union minister of women and child development Renuka Chaudhary of the Congress, BSP chief Mayawati and textile minister Smriti Irani, who are otherwise vocal in almost all debates, did not attend the crucial discussion on maternity bill, which lasted for nearly one and a half hours.
Only nine of the 27 women MPs were present in the house and only seven of them including Women & Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, Vandana Chavan, Wansuk Syiem, Vijila Sathyananth, Kahkashan Parween, Kanimozhi and Anu Aga sat through the debate. Gandhi, who often made headlines for being engrossed with phone during debates, was all ears throughout the discussion.
The Bill, however, limits the benefits to a woman for the first two children she bears. In case of a third pregnancy, she can avail the existing 12 weeks’ leave.
The amendments of the Bill were drafted by Ministry of Women and Child and was introduced in the house by labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya.
Expressing her satisfaction over the consensus of the house on the Bill, Gandhi said that it was two years of hard work put in by her ministry that has given the Bill its present shape.
Pressing the urgency to pass the legislation, the minister said, “All through the two years while we’ve been pushing for this, pregnant women have mailed me asking, “Is it through yet? Will I be able to get the benefit?”
The minister also informed that her ministry had recommended that leave be extended to 32 weeks, but the government and the industry reached a consensus on 26 weeks.
Seventy of the 244 members present in the House unanimously passed the Bill.
The opposition leaders including Satish Mishra of the BSP and Derek O’Brien of the TMC raised the issue of the surrogate mothers.
They, however, found little support amongst the women MPs present. “Sir, there has been an oversight on the part of this House. We have all missed out on the rights and needs of a surrogate mother. The Bill needs to be amended further to address their concern,” said O’Brien.
Leadership coach Aparna Jain argues that the benefits should extend to fathers, too for a healthier shared parenting. Jain’s book, Own It, about women in leadership roles in the corporate world, is based on conversations with over 200 women.