Several decades ago,
urban primary schoolers grew up, through their textbooks, on a staple
diet of a "normal" family as one where the father was the one who
worked to earn and the mother stayed at home to look after the family
– cooking, cleaning and (if she was adequately educated) helping children
with the home assignments. Decades later, the image of a perfect mother
is one who balances her responsibilities at home with her profession;
the super-mum who makes path-breaking financial decisions at work, equally
important personal decisions at home, looks like a supermodel and cooks
like a super chef, the latter continuing to be her most important job
and satisfying accomplishment.
While cosmopolitan India has seen women
negotiate the tight spaces between working professional and home-maker
for themselves – depending on what works best for them, it really
is the smaller towns and cities, aspiring metros, or rural parts of
the country that are still light years away from urbane India, where women struggle
to pay the price for the education they fight for and the discrimination
they fight against. These are parts of the country where stereotypical
images continue to be too rigid to deconstruct and traditional responsibilities
saddled with more modern imagery and demands ensure that women constantly
struggle to balance the two.
Women rejoining work after a prolonged maternity
leave are known to stagnate or lose out professionally when compared
to other colleagues. Often they are ignored when it comes to assigning
more challenging tasks simply on the assumption that if you are not
already married you would be soon and would immediately jump into the
process of starting and then raising a family.
The Indian government recently decided to give women
in government service paid child care leave for two years. The provision, implemented
since September 1, 2008, allows leave for the entire service period
and can be availed in a combination of spells, over and above the regular
leave to which an employee is entitled. More importantly, it will not affect
seniority and regular promotions. In government service, where senior
appointments are often decided by a matter of seniority which could amount to barely a few days apart between contending aspirants, women lose out due
to the leave availed during their pregnancies since the number
of workdays is counted while determining seniority.
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roles and familial pressures ensure that education has often not been
a guarantee for a woman to be able to make decisions regarding their
own fertility – when and how many children she wants. The government’s
earlier two child policy, which was mandatory for government employees,
has also witnessed this group of professionals as offenders in sex selective
abortions since promotions were guided by who violated or adhered to
the two child norm. From forced sterilization in the seventies the two-child policy shifted to disincentives for government employees who had more than two children.
The benefits (and underlying pressure) of having
a small family were not always accompanied by a corresponding sensitization
towards rearing a girl child. The child care provision too continues to be
guided by an encouragement for smaller families. The new leave regime
for women means that during their stint with the government, they can
avail of this paid leave for as much as three years, provided it is used
for the two
oldest children. Besides,
even if a woman has only one child, she can take the two-year leave.
It is a move that
has been welcomed by many.
But what about women in the private sector?
Many are asking for its extension to the private
sector which in more recent years has seen a rise
in the employment opportunities available to women. Those pushing to adopt these policies in the private sector also point out that the sector has fewer systems in place protecting women employees
from gender-based exploitation. The disproportionate ratio of few jobs
and more job-seekers coupled with market competitiveness ensures that
most women lose professionally on returning from even the mandatory
90 day maternity leave. Women in the private sector are often hard-pressed
for such leave beyond the maternity break (rarely beyond 90 days), besides
the regular quota of earned, casual and medical leave. Given that women
already suffer from this bias, the fear expressed by some that it may
lead to a further entrenchment of this gender bias and negatively impact
women’s career prospects and in fact even directly impact their recruitment
might not appear so far-fetched.
The government, on the other hand, argues
that the decision will help women balance home and office responsibilities —
a clear indication of its own unwillingness to interfere in established
social roles of women. So, the government finds it easier to introduce provisions
hinged on these established notions. A working woman would now
get government assistance in balancing her role of a good mother/wife
with that of a professional. With men comprising seventy percent of
the work force, in most sectors, the resentment is bound to show. In
government services like the armed forces women are already accused
of getting away with softer assignments and priority with regard to
leave most of the time. Women were not allowed permanent commission in the armed forces – except in the medical
corps – (a practice that is to change prospectively by the year 2015)
which means they do not enjoy the perks that a regular permanent employee
of the armed forces enjoys. In the context of other government
departments an extension of the same argument and disguised resentment
is bound to add on additional work burden on other employees with
such prolonged absences of women employees.
Bringing up baby, changing roles
But one of the more
crucial concerns is surrounding the perception that women alone are
saddled with the responsibility of bringing up the children. While being
sensitive towards the demands on a woman with relation to child rearing,
the notification does little to change the notion of child rearing being
a shared responsibility. It puts the burden of care-giving completely
on the women and does little to change the traditional roles of men
as breadwinners to that of care-givers. Urban couples increasingly
share responsibilities, but by giving all the benefits to the women the
government is doing little to change the mindset that child care is solely
the woman’s responsibility. Moreover, families that have made the transition to shared responsibilities are the ones who
will either suffer from this provision or shift back to the more stereotypical
division of labor between spouses as the provision literally places
the responsibility of childcare on women.
A part of the child care leave can be used
to take care of a sick child, again suggesting
that only women are equipped to take care of their sick children. Why
is the mother the only person responsible for teaching or taking care
during illness, if the father is also willing to perform similar duties?
Shifting roles require rules that benefit that shift. Fifteen days of
paternity leave stands out in stark contrast to three years for the woman,
revealing the role a father plays/is expected to play in the actual
process of nurturing. A more gendered approach is required and child care leave should
be extended to both parents with either of them taking the leave to
share childcare responsibilities.
And yet, the new leave
regime is bound to make government jobs more woman friendly and attractive
not only for women but also for nuclear families because of the underlying
assurance that, at least, the mother can be with the child when needed.
It will also benefit women in most parts of the country where they continue
to struggle to maintain a balance between professional and domestic
commitments from within the demands of rigid, stereotyped
roles. And more crucially, it will benefit single mothers the most, especially
in light of recent instances of single mothers losing the custody of their children by virtue of being working
professionals as the court found them incapable of taking care of the
child. But correspondingly it also throws up the issue of single
fatherhood as the law fails to take into account single fathers who
also have child care responsibilities. Child care leave is bound to be a tricky
issue at a time when the pace of change in Indian society is far from
homogenous. Different parts of the country with virtually different
time zones as far as the traditional gender imbalanced, division of
roles is concerned. It is in this context of contesting changes that
the actual implementation of the law and its impact on the lives of
women both in the professional and domestic sphere will become crucial.