As of Thursday, women in India now receive one of the longest durations of fully paid maternity leave in the world, falling shortly behind Canada and Norway at 26 weeks. The bill had been pending since last August, finally coming into law this week when it passed in the lower house, or the Lok Sabha.
The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is predicted to assist 1.8 million women in the country.
Minister of Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, said she was “very, very happy” that history had been made.
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“This will help thousands of women and lead to much healthier children,” she said.
Once the bill receives assent from the president, working women in all public and private establishments employing 10 or more people will be entitled to double the previous amount of allotted maternity leave. The bill also includes a provision for women to work from home after her leave expires — a time that would be negotiated between the woman and her employer.
The extension, however, is only applicable to women for their first two children. After that, she will be given 12 weeks leave.
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Among other benefits, the bill provides 12 weeks to any woman who adopts a child below the age of three months and the commissioning (or surrogate) mother.
“This is my humble gift to women,” Labor Minister Bandaru Dattatreya said, in light of International Women’s Day.
Some critics say that the law could have a negative impact on companies’ hiring decisions.
Sushmita Dev, a congress member from the debate, said the amendment could dissuade the private sector from employing women in the workforce. She added that 90% of the female workforce is in the “unorganized sector.”
“The innovate thing to do would be to bring in paternity benefit,” she said.
But activists and women’s rights organizations who have long-awaited the passage say that the law will encourage more women to pursue their careers after pregnancy.
Indian women will now get a longer maternity leave than what is provided in countries like Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and South Korea, the Minister said.
Only four countries today have no mandated paid maternity leave: Swaziland, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and the United States.
And of the 41 other developed countries highlighted by a 2016 PEW report, the US mandates the least amount of general time off.
Just 12% of US workers get paid time off to tend to babies or parents who are ill, reports Bloomberg. For federal and state employees, that number is 16%. And yet, women are the breadwinners for 40% of US families with children under the age of 18. The numbers are indicative of a flawed system, and one that certainly lacks family-friendly policies.
During a house debate on Thursday, one particular moment stood out, reflective of the United States’ paid maternity leave sentiment. While the House Energy and Commerce Committee went back and forth on GOP plans to revise Obamacare — which requires plans to cover pregnancy and childbirth — Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) questioned why men are required to pay for prenatal care.
“And should they?” he asked.
Insurance expert and columnist, Nancy Metcalf, put it this way: “as a middle-aged childless man you resent having to pay for maternity care or kids’ dental care. Shouldn’t turnabout be fair play? Shouldn’t pregnant women and kids be able to say, “Fine, but in that case why should we have to pay for your Viagra, or prostate cancer tests, or the heart attack and high blood pressure you are many times more likely to suffer from than we are?” Once you start down that road, it’s hard to know where to stop.”
Paid leave programs in a handful of states provide models of success. In California, for example, a report in 2011 revealed that the introduction of a statewide paid family leave program had positive effects on both businesses and workers six years later.
A study by the National Partnership for Women and Families found that, “the capacity to recognize a caregiver’s voice, smell, and face develops around 3 months old. Paid time to care gives parents and babies important time to foster these connections.”
But, for now, India will take the lead to ensure better health and wellbeing of mothers and children.
The “passage of the Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha is a landmark moment in our efforts towards women-led development,” India’s Prime Minister proudly said.