Child care is a joint responsibility of both parents; thus, both the father and the mother must be entitled to paternity and maternity leaves, respectively. While maternity leaves are considerably typical in India, we are racing behind for paternity leaves. Such leaves are provided to the father shortly before or after childbirth. In most cases, both parents are working. Therefore, men are relieved of the responsibility of being the sole breadwinners for their families. Therefore, the responsibility of sharing household chores lies as much on men as it does on women.
In 2020, Union Minister Jeetendra Singh had announced that government employees who are single parents could take up to two years of childcare leave. Seemingly, this reform promoted gender equality. However, a closer look at the Law showed a longer path to pave to bring equal gender relations. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 was amended in 2017. Under the new Act, female employees can take 26 weeks of paid maternity leaves in establishments with more than ten workers. Out of the 26 weeks, expecting mothers can avail themselves of eight weeks of leave before the delivery of the child. Mothers who seek to adopt children can avail themselves of up to 12 weeks of maternity leave benefits.
No Universal Paternity Leave Law In India
Unfortunately, there is no such provision for paternity leaves. The Central Civil Services (Leave) Rules,1972, give a provision to male government employees to take paternity leaves 15 days before the birth or within six months of the birth of the baby. In contrast, other countries provide much better benefits to their employees. For instance, Finland allows seven months of leave to their employees, whether males or females. In Sweden, both parents are entitled to a collective leave of 480 days, divided amongst them. However, each parent has been earmarked 90 days of compulsory leave.
The father's presence at childbirth makes him sensitive to the needs of the newborn baby and the mother. Such a realization makes him more helpful in household chores and more affectionate towards the baby. Paternity leaves help fathers take time out for their family and contribute to the needs on the home front. Moreover, being a part of the child's formative years makes it easier for the child to develop a strong bond with both parents instead of just one. The child would also learn by example that caregiving is not a gender-based role but a shared responsibility.
Even though the Indian Law is not too narrow, it still seems to originate from the thought that taking care of the child is primarily the mother's responsibility. The limitation of the leave to single male parents reinforces the thought. It marks a father's role in child-rearing at the last resort. If paternity leaves applied to all men alike, it would mean that men can take pressure off their wives shoulders. The responsibility of putting childcare entirely on women pushes them to take longer leaves from work, and in worst cases, they have to quit working permanently.
A study conducted by the Genpact Institute of Women Leadership mentioned that 50 per cent of working women in the country leave their jobs at the age of 30 to cater to the needs of their children. Amongst those who manage to return to work, 48 per cent leave their jobs within four months. It is a known fact that a child's development results from an equal contribution from the ends of both the father and the mother. However, the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act 2016 increased the leave period for women employees to 26 weeks and directed more than 50 women employees to provide a creche facility. Even though this provision came as a relief to several working mothers, the amendment reinforces the thought that childcare is only the mother's responsibility.
Paternity leave is sanctioned to government employees only. There is no such obligation to the private sector to provide paternity benefits to their employees. However, some major multinational companies have already included paternity leave benefits for their employees in their HR policies. Microsoft grants their employees 12 weeks of paternity leave, while Facebook announced it for 17 weeks. Infosys and Oracle provide five days of leave to their employees, and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) provides 15 days.
UNICEF Sets An Example
The United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) set an example for the world by extending the provision of four weeks of paid paternity leave for their male employees to sixteen weeks across all its offices in the world. UNICEF was the first United Nations' Agency to extend such a benefit to help father and child develop their bond. Studies have shown that countries that provide adequate maternity and paternity leaves for their employees witness better economic development than those that do not provide such a facility.
While adequate maternity leave can result in a lower infant mortality rate, health benefits for the mother, and high female labour force participation, paternity leaves serve a wide range of purposes. It improves the development outcomes, better health and economic facilities for the new mother, equitable distribution of household chores and increased bonding with the child.
A report by the World Bank mentioned that policymakers across the world are changing direction to this positive path. Between 2017- 2019, 16 countries improvised legal protection for their parents. For instance, Fiji introduced paid paternity leave and increased maternity leave from 84 days to 98 days. Another such example is Canada, in which it launched a new parental leave sharing benefit of 35 days paid leave for the father.
There is a need to understand that even though paternity leaves would indirectly benefit the mothers, the ultimate beneficiary would be the fathers only. As a society, we must shift the role of fathers that we have been taught for ages. Fathers should not be seen as mere supporters of their wives but as active co-parents themselves. Currently, adapting to such a mindset might be too ambitious for India. However, small changes like the universal applicability of paternity leaves for all employees, be it men or women, can make a difference in employees' personal and professional lives.