Maneka Gandhi, India’s women and child development minister, seems to have no faith in Indian fathers. After being lauded for her efforts to increase maternity leave in India from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, Gandhi stirred a controversy on Wednesday over the debate on paternity leave.
In the two weeks since the Rajya Sabha cleared the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill allowing 26 weeks of maternity leave for working mothers in the organised sector, there has been a growing demand for paternity leave for fathers as well. Since the late 1990s, men in government service have already been entitled to 15 days of paid paternity leave, but in the private sector, this is not mandatory.
Gandhi, however, claimed that if given the option to avail of paternity leave, men would not “do anything” and treat it as simply another “holiday”. In an interview with Indian Express, Gandhi said, “Paternity leave can be considered only if, once the woman goes back to work after her 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child. Let me see how many men do that.”
Over the past 40 years, 78 countries around the world have introduced paternity leave, either paid, partially paid or unpaid. But Gandhi seems to indicate that paternity leave is not suited to India.
Many might be inclined to agree with Gandhi: today, most Indian men are not likely to take over the duties of diaper-changing, bathing or feeding a baby so that their wives can get back to work. But should the nation really share the minister’s disillusionment? Not if it aspires to bring about long-term societal change, and not when there are at least five compelling reasons to demand that paternity leave be introduced in India.
1. Fathers around the world do avail of leave
Back in 1976, Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce paid parental leave for men and women. Over the years, it moved from offering seven days of paid leave for fathers to offering 60 days of exclusive paternity leave today – plus an additional 420 days to be shared by both parents.
A 2014 study on men’s parental leave in Sweden observed that in that country, “fathers are expected to take parental leave, and almost all men do so. Men who have taken longer leaves than expected have in general reported positive experiences of both the leave itself and the responses from their social networks.”
Iceland has seen similar positive trends and Canada, too, has seen a rise in the number of men availing of paternity leave in recent times. In 2012, around 25% of new fathers in Canada opted for paternity leave, but the figure rose significantly in just a year, to 30.8% in 2013.
One could argue that these trends are not universal – the UK, for instance, has not seen many men taking advantage of paternity leave benefits. But that does not take away from the fact that there are, in fact, several fathers who would like to have the option of sharing parental leave with their spouses and being more active in childcare.
2. A father's responsibility must be emphasised
Twenty six weeks of maternity leave is a great policy to help working mothers care for an infant. Bbut whenever countries around the world introduce paternity leave, it is to emphasise the fact that hands-on childcare is not the job of mothers alone.
“It is extremely important for fathers to take three to six months off from work to be close to their child,” said Suman K, a writer and IT professional from Bangalore whose company gave him just a week’s leave after his daughter was born in 2010. Suman later went on to quit his job to care for the baby so that his wife, a doctor, could pursue a specialist’s degree. “By actively looking after their children, fathers can ease the burden from mothers who are already overworked and often dealing with a lot of post-natal stress.”
According to Sujata Mody, national secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative, the Indian government actually has a good opportunity to send out a message to that effect. “By mandating paternity leave, the government could recognise, for the first time, that childcare is also the responsibility of men.”
3. Laws and policies should be aspirational
Would most Indian men, as we know them today, treat paternity leave as a holiday? Perhaps. Will most Indian men continue to avoid hands-on childcare even in the future? Perhaps not, if there is an attitudinal shift enabled by strong government policies, education and changes in work culture.
The point of laws and government policies is not to maintain societal status quos but to aspire to a better kind society. “At the moment our culture does not expect fathers to be involved in childcare, but one should look at society as always evolving and transforming – that is the only way social attitudes can change,” said Sujata Mody, who believes Maneka Gandhi’s views on paternity leave are “defeatist and dismissive”.
According to senior journalist Samar Halarnkar, the minister’s perspective doesn’t account for the fact that society is already changing. When he had his daughter six years ago, Halarnkar asked for paternity leave and was initially told that there was “no such thing” at his company. “But I spoke to them about how that was wrong and eventually they gave me two weeks of leave,” said Halarnkar, who would like the government to convey to people that it approves of the idea of fathers contributing to childcare.
For now, paternity leave is offered as an option only in a handful of urban, private corporations. But Mody believes that if the government begins to mandate it across the organised sector, its effects would eventually percolate even in the unorganised sector. “In the future, if your watchman wants to take paid leave to look after his child, you would then be okay with granting it to him,” she said.
4. Women’s participation in labour has been falling
One purpose of paternity leave or shared parental leave is also to make it easier for mothers to get back to the workforce after having a baby – and to make it possible for women to consider working at all. Statistics indicate that India has been faring poorly on that front.
A nation-wide “employment and unemployment” survey, conducted by the National Sample Survey Office, revealed that the number of working women across India fell from 126.49 million in 2004-'05 to 103.6 million in 2011-'12. In urban areas, the increase in working women was marginal, from 26.5 million in 2005-'06 to 28.8 million in 2011-'12.
“We are going through a phase when the labour participation of women is reducing,” said Ellina Samantroy, a sociologist and faculty member at the VV Giri National Labour Institute. “Shared parental leave for fathers and mothers is important to increase the representation of women in the workforce and also ensure equal opportunities for both genders.”
5. Paternity leave benefits children
In countries that mandate paternity leave, it has been well-documented that a father’s involvement tends to have a positive impact on a child’s well-being.
A long-term study from Norway, for instance, found that when fathers availed of the country’s four-week paternity leave option, they developed long-lasting bonds with their children that would other-wise only develop between mother and child. In fact, the study also found that children’s school performance improves due to paternity leave. Another multi-nation study found that fathers who took even a minimum of ten days of paternity leave were more involved with child-rearing activities at later stages.
“The stimulation a child gets from different individual care-givers is different, so attachment to more than one care giver is extremely important for a child’s development,” said Rajani Konantambigi, a professor at the centre of human ecology at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Indian fathers, she said, often complain that their children do not turn to them when they face problems. “But if fathers bond with their children by caring for them in early childhood, those bonds last later in life too.”