Women's rights

Will universal maternity entitlements in India remain a pipe dream?

Existing minimal entitlements to women are now being undermined further through the half-hearted Maternity Benefit Programme.

Maternity entitlements have been in the news several times over the last year. In August 2016, the Maternity Benefit Act was amended to extend the period of paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. Later, in his New Year’s eve address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the expansion of a maternity benefit scheme to all districts. Last week, the Cabinet approved a Maternity Benefit Programme that does cover all districts across the country but dilutes the entitlements to each beneficiary and imposes conditions that will exclude many women.

The new Maternity Benefit Programme will give Rs 5,000, going up to Rs 6,000 on an average by taking into account the incentives women receive from other schemes in case of an institutional delivery, as well as in the course of their first pregnancy and child birth. This is conditional upon them registering birth and pregnancy, accessing antenatal care and immunisation and is an extremely inadequate step towards achieving universal maternity entitlements. It is an expansion of the pilot Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana which is currently being implemented in 53 districts, in an even more diluted form to the entire country.

Women’s right to maternity benefits has been a largely unrecognised issue in the mainstream media as well as among policy makers in the country for all these years. This is basically linked to the non-recognition of women’s unpaid work including the care work that they carry on within the household. Now, although there is some discussion around it, universal and comprehensive maternity protection remains a distant dream.

Large gaps

The Constitution of India under Article 42 of the Directive Principles states that, “The State shall make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief”. The International Labour Organisation Convention to which India is also a signatory states that pregnant women should get at least four months of paid leave in recognition of their contribution to the role of social reproduction. It emphasises that pregnancy and childbirth is a vulnerable period for the woman and child who require additional support in the form of nutrition and health services and wage compensation. However, the present situation on the ground on accessibility to maternity entitlements for the large majority of Indian women is pretty grim.

The Maternity Benefit Act after the recent amendment provides for 26 weeks of paid leave but only for those women who are employed in certain sectors that fall under the definition of “establishment” under this Act. This leaves out more than 90% of women in the reproductive age who are engaged in work outside this formal sector, like agricultural labourers, home-based workers, domestic workers, unpaid workers doing work in the fields and homes, and so on. In fact, the definition of “work” itself where only paid employment is accounted for is problematic in a situation where all women are working but many of them are not being paid. Without going into further details on the issue of measurement and recognition of work, it can be stated here that all women work and that this needs to be recognised for the purpose of maternity entitlements.

A woman working at a construction site. (Photo: Pixabay)
A woman working at a construction site. (Photo: Pixabay)

The present Maternity Benefit Programme does state providing wage compensation as one of its objectives but the design of the scheme is faulty and exclusionary. One of the major problems is that the amount of compensation of Rs 6,000 is without any basis and is too low. Six months is the minimum period for which compensation must be given as that is the recommended period for exclusive breastfeeding. In fact, women in a number of occupations would require a longer period away from work because of the strenuous conditions under which they work – both paid and unpaid. If we take 26 weeks of 6 days a week in the Maternity Benefit Act and a wage of Rs 175 per day, which is close to the current National Rural Employment Guarantee Act wage rate in many states as the benchmark, then we arrive at an amount of Rs 27,300 as full wage compensation, which is more than four times what is being promised.

Tamil Nadu’s Dr Muthulaxmi Reddy Maternity Benefit Scheme, which is the pioneering scheme of cash based maternity benefits, now provides Rs. 18,000 per woman, while it was Rs 6,000 about five years back when the National Food Security Act was being drafted. During this period, while the amount has increased three-fold in TN, the roll out of the National Food Security Act entitlement is long delayed and now finally being done but still only partially. The inequity becomes starker when compared with the benefits that central government employees get – six months of fully paid maternity leave and an additional two years of paid child care leave.

Who needs benefits the most?

In spite of this low amount, the inclusion of universal maternity entitlements of at least Rs 6,000 under the National Food Security Act was a welcome step, as it was seen as the first recognition within the legislative framework of women’s work in the unorganised sector and their right to wage compensation during pregnancy and lactation. However, even this minimal entitlement is now being undermined further through the half-hearted Maternity Benefit Programme.

First is the issue of reducing the amount to Rs 5,000 and trying to claim that it is Rs 6,000 by including the incentive given under Janani Suraksha Yojana, which is a completely different scheme with a different set of eligibility criteria as well as objectives. Second, the outreach of the scheme is being restricted to only the first birth thereby keeping out a large number of women. Given higher fertility rates, which in itself are a result of poor health conditions, the exclusion due to this condition would be more amongst those women who are poor, living in less developed states and belonging to socially marginalised communities. Third, the other conditions related to using health services can also result in many being left out due to reasons such as being unable to access these services due to unavailability, poor quality etc.

If the government and the Prime Minister are really serious about their commitment to women’s right to maternity entitlements then what is required is that there is an immediate universalisation of the Maternity Benefit Programme without any conditions. Women who are working in the public sector or receiving higher wage compensation from their current workplace need not be included. But, all other women must be covered. Further, a concrete plan for a comprehensive maternity entitlement linked to wages must be made and implemented soon. For this, the proposed Labour Code on Social Security and Welfare might be the apt opportunity. The current draft is just a rehash of the Maternity Benefit Act, but it is hoped that the comments received from a number of civil society groups will be seriously considered.

The writer teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.