A few days ago, the Facebook page of the Ministry of Women & Child Development, posted this particular news article. On the face of it, it seems like a jubilant reiteration of the plan that Maneka Gandhi proposed – to extend paid maternity leave from three months to eight months. But the explanation provided by the Minister for Women & Child Development seems quite sexist.

To quote from the article:
"Eight months of maternity leave is a necessity because in one month, the woman goes into the stage where she has to prepare for the baby’s needs which include taking care of his/ her clothes, food, and other essentials."

But, Ms. Gandhi, nowhere did you mention that child rearing is not just a woman’s responsibility. The one month in which the future mother is meant to prepare for the child’s arrival by buying clothes, stocking food and the likes is equally the father’s responsibility too. The first six months of the child's life, which is a significantly large adjustment period for parents, places an unfair burden on the mother since the father is mostly unavailable to help out.

In India there is no legislation requiring companies to provide paternity leave. While Central government employees are offered 15 days paid paternity leave, individual companies are under no obligation to do so. This basically means that most companies offer just three days off as paternity leave. So, in a culture that already expects mothers to be multi-tasking goddesses, the ministry is offering no respite by reiterating the same belief.

Sweden, the most feminist country in the world, was in the forefront of offering equal parental leave. Currently, fathers get two months paid parental leave, and starting 2016, this will extend to three months paid leave. Also, this leave is not interchangeable – meaning women cannot take additional time off, while men continue to go to work. So, fathers actually get time to be one of the primary caretakers and bond with their children.

Maneka Gandhi also said:
"The ideal minimum duration for breastfeeding a baby is seven months. All the best doctors and gynaecologists have suggested that seven months are required for breastfeeding a child. Only after this period can one go ahead and give the child home-cooked food. This sums up the importance of the eight month period.

Thinking about mothers too

But, why reduce the necessity of maternity leave to address only the needs of the newborn? The purpose of maternity leave was not just to ensure the well-being (and nursing) of the child, but also to help the mother recuperate from the difficult and arduous exercise of childbirth. Natural childbirth is hard enough, and when women have to go through a C-section, which is categorised as a major surgery, the body goes through a lot more stress.

The International Labour Organisation clearly states that the goal of maternity protection legislation is to enable women to combine their reproductive and productive roles successfully and to promote equal opportunities and treatment in employment and occupation, without prejudice to health or economic security. This is why The Maternity Benefit Act of India strictly states that a woman is entitled to paid six weeks off even in the event of a miscarriage.

The severe double standards of Maneka Gandhi's proposal also come to the forefront when you realise that according to Indian law, contractual employees are actually not eligible for any maternity benefits.

For instance, a resident of Belapur in Maharashtra was refused maternity leave and instead her contract was terminated by the Water Supply & Sanitation Department when she asked for time off during her pregnancy.

While we appreciate the attention paid to maternity benefits and childbirth, we might consider the proposal with a larger sense of approval, if it was not used to once again draw focus on mothers and their importance in a child’s life, and to conveniently forget the other parent in the mix.

This article was first published on feminisminindia.com.