August 11 should be counted as a historic day for India. The Rajya Sabha passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, which will aim to increase maternity leave for working women in India from 12 (three months) to 26 weeks (more than six months).
It will also provide 12 weeks of maternity leave to commissioning and adopting mothers (one who gets a baby via a surrogate mother or someone who adopts a baby younger than three months).
The only part that I am a little sceptical about is this: the Bill also has a provision that will let nursing moms work from home even after the 26-week period, depending on her job profile and provided she and her manager both mutually agree to the arrangement.
This is something I see very few companies implementing because managers are bound to feel that nursing moms can misuse this (who's to actually check whether you're nursing or not), and secondly, we're not yet a culture that's comfortable with people drawing full salaries but working from home.
We are yet to accept that responsible, dedicated employees need not physically sit in the office to be productive. In India, showing your face at work, even if you're playing Candy Crush half the day, is the norm.
|Fortunately though, new moms will have it a tad easier.|
So, even though Maneka Gandhi, Union minister for women and child development, said while discussing the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, "Maternity leave is not a holiday, but a very stressful time for the woman", I don't see this provision being implemented very enthusiastically.
But that's a small part. As a mom of two, I am genuinely happy for the next generation of mothers and a little bummed that this Bill has come five years too late (for me).
In 2011, when I had my younger daughter, I was on my maternity leave when my boss made me an offer I couldn't refuse. So, from being the deputy editor of a magazine, I got the chance to become the editor of another, a parenting magazine.
It couldn't have been better timing, except, it meant that I went back to work leaving a three-month-old baby at home. Of course I had family support, and didn't do full hours initially, and pumped milk to be left in bottles so she could be fed if needed, but - and you can shoot me if you like but I'm going to say it anyway - it was bloody hard.
Every single book you read, and even the WHO guidelines tell you that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. In effect, this means that you're not supposed to give them even water, because breast milk has all the nutrients and water they need in the exact quantities they need it (don't ask me how, I'm not a scientist). But what I do know is that it is literally impossible to go back to full-time work and manage this feat (exclusive breastfeeding for six months).
While scores of articles will tell you how easy it is to carry a breast pump to work and go to the washroom and pump milk and then store it and take it home so the baby is still getting only breast milk even though you're not physically around to nurse, executing this is anything but easy peasy.
Can you even imagine how weird it would be to keep disappearing to the loo every two-three hours for at least 30 minutes to pump milk? And what would others make of the whirring sound of the pump? Plus, it just sounds so unhygienic. And let's not even talk about the embarrassing leaks. This is precisely why formula milk is a life saviour for so many moms, despite what the doctors say. I gave it too. Even earlier than three months.
This explains why women drop out of the work force. In India, one of the most rapidly growing economies in the world, women represent only 24 per cent of the paid labour force, as against the global average of 40 per cent, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, as quoted in Livemint.com. In the 15-59 years age group, women's participation is only 21 per cent in urban areas as against 81 per cent for men.
I don't even need to look far to verify this statistic. So many of my friends who started work when I did, slowly dropped out, and never went back. They're all smart, intelligent, with different skill sets, but they're wilfully unemployed.
Fortunately though, new moms will have it a tad easier. And if the Bill's other provision that companies with over 50 employees will need to establish a crèche either individually or with other companies is implemented, women will not have to view career versus motherhood. The two can mutually coexist.
As India is all set to join 42 countries in the world that have paid leave of more than 18 weeks, there are certain things we should thank our stars for. Look at it this way: the US, for all its progressiveness, is one of only four countries worldwide that doesn't offer guaranteed paid leave to new mothers.