Acknowledging unpaid care work and the need for a Paternity Benefit Act

The lack of a gender-just legislation on paternal leave is directly proportionate to the gender gap on sustained and equitable distribution of parenting roles.
Maternity leave, paternity leave
Maternity leave, paternity leave

In 2019, Zomato announced it was going to offer 26 weeks of paid paternity leave to all its employees, including new fathers, regardless of whether they were adoptive, biological or surrogate. This policy was clearly articulated to make no distinction between male and female employees. The policy was, rightly enough, hailed by netizens as progressive and welcome in an era when the existing Maternity Benefit Act (post-2017 Amendment) was deemed elusive in its implementation.

Cut to a few weeks ago, when the Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli was labelled ‘unpatriotic' and ‘unprofessional’ for exercising his right to utilise his paternity leave. The question here is: Why was this a matter of national news? What does this hue and cry really say about our societal values on gender and parenting roles?

A simple Google search will list a menu of data resources on how an Indian woman is entitled to maternity leave, now extended from 12 weeks to 26 weeks since 2017 for all women employees, unless they have two or more surviving children (which is an unsubtle nod to “hum do humare do”), working in an establishment with over 10 employees. While many of us may be cognizant of the laws a woman may avail under the Maternity Benefit Act (MBA), where are we on its paternal counterpart and what does the Virat Kohli incident say about our stand on the gender parity index?

The Paternity Benefit Bill: A tectonic shift in systemic gender inequality

Although companies like Microsoft and Novartis have a fairly progressive paternity leave policy for its employees, there exists no national legislation that mandates the same in India. However the Central government, as per the All India Services (Leave) Rules, 1955, grants its male employees a paid leave of a period of 15 days which shall be the equivalent of last drawn salary prior to the commencement of leave. This amenity is granted for the male employee’s first two children and is also available to a male employee adopting a child younger than 12 months.

Here, we stand in stark contrast to Nordic countries like Finland and Sweden, where the former allows seven months of paid paternity leave for both new mothers and fathers, while the latter grants new parents 480 days of paid leave. Having said that, what we need to rectify the current imbalance due to unpaid, over-looked domestic care work is a Central legislation to regulate and, more importantly, “normalize” paternity leave.

Fortunately, the Paternity Benefit Bill (PBB), penning before Parliament, is egalitarian in its drafting as it grants leave even for miscarriages. A marriage is a partnership between equals and it’s time we recognize the emotional and psychological toll a miscarriage takes on a couple. Furthermore, the Bill conceptualizes a Parental Benefit Scheme for providing paternity benefit to every man/father. Since the Bill has not been passed, this resultant absence of legislation not only reinforces the stereotype that childcare is the sole responsibility of a woman, but also echoes the deeply entrenched discriminatory social norms that cause barriers in the women’s economic empowerment, namely, unpaid domestic care work.

What is the double burden phenomenon?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines unpaid care work as washing, cleaning, cooking, shopping for domestic utilities, caring for children, elderly and sick people, tending to food, fuel and water collection, making energy provision, and doing family labour in agricultural settings among a host of other things. This is defined as “double burden phenomenon” as women are expected to engage in unpaid care work in addition to successfully fulfilling commitments arising out of their paid work.

An National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) report of 2019 on Time Use Survey (TUS) aims to understand how men and women allocate time towards paid and unpaid activities in India. This survey shows that an urban woman spends 293 minutes per day on unpaid domestic services for household members as opposed to men, who spend 94 minutes on the same. Similarly, a woman living in rural India spends 301 minutes per day on unpaid domestic services for household members while her male counterpart spends 98 minutes only. Furthermore, urban women spend 138 minutes per day on unpaid care-giving services for their families, while her rural counterpart spends 132 minutes per day on the same.

Feminist scholars and economists have, time and again, argued that social norms carry the sole proprietorship on how and, if at all, women are able to enter, re-enter and exist in a workplace. The lack of a gender-just legislation on paternal leave is directly proportionate to the gender gap on sustained and equitable distribution of parenting roles. A scholarly study by the ILO titled Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment talks about how gender equality in unpaid care work is furthermore directly proportionate to women labour force participation. The women’s labour force participation will increase, or at the very least stabilise, if one of the various factors contributing to the former decline, i.e. unpaid care work is regularised by state-funded welfare.

Including unpaid care work in our legislation will yield effective policymaking to acknowledge the social and cultural constraints women face. In order to plug the loopholes that persist in our efforts to achieve women’s empowerment, what we need is a mechanism that redistributes the time devoted by women on unpaid domestic care work by including men into the equation. This is precisely where the Paternity Benefit Bill comes in.

While India has made significant strides in promoting work/life balance, for example, mandating setting up of childcare or crèche facilities, what passing the Paternity Benefit Bill will do is not only unlock an all new level of women’s economic empowerment, but also go a long way in recognizing deeply entrenched social discriminatory practices that dictate unpaid care work to be a burden carried solely by women.

Paucity of statutory paternity leave indicates women bear the brunt of unpaid care work

Gender norms and domestic work/chores are not mutually exclusive. Gender patterns evolve over time. However, gender inequalities and unpaid care activities do not exist in isolation. Essentially, there exist multi-faceted and systemic social, economic and cultural barriers waiting to be identified and ameliorated in order for women to return to the workforce after pregnancy and become visibly represented in medium to high paying jobs. Having a Maternity Benefit Act without a structuralist understanding of granular gender inequalities will naturally lead to a deficient implementation of otherwise progressive schemes. There seems to be a slip between the cup and the lip.

While it is remarkable that India is one country that has impressive legislation on maternity leave as opposed to the United States that has no federal legislation at all on the subject - thus aiding and abetting the State’s benign patriarchy that deems women being better off as mothers rather than active members of a fully-paid work force - India’s welfare schemes for mothers needs to be aided and augmented with a well-rounded approach to sustained restructuring of gender norms.

What we need to understand is that time is a limited resource which, when divided unequally between paid and unpaid activities, is a major reason why women are not adequately represented in high-paying jobs.

How does one finance the redressal of unpaid care work?

PBB is a step towards transforming and re-aligning gender norms to fit the gender parity framework which will, in turn, remove one of the greatest structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment. Policies and schemes aimed at addressing women’s economic empowerment cannot be drafted using a straitjacket formula assuming men and women face identical problems in public and private settings. What the PBB does is finance the redressal of gender inequity in a manner that is beyond the linearity of investment worthy parameters. The PBB represents a carefully argued and holistic approach that reiterates the notion that gender equality is a worthy investment.

Perhaps the reason why the MBA has been limited in its implementation is because all this while we have been using the existing apparatus to fit into the gender conversation. Instead, what we truly need is an approach where gender is not an afterthought but the guiding principle, the foundational element and the building blocks upon which the welfare mechanism pivots. If the long-pending PBB were to be passed, we would finally, as a nation, be putting our money where our mouth is. By doing so, we are agreeing to allocate a portion of our resources to normalize gender and put women and family issues in tandem with the larger scheme of things.

The author is a lawyer at the Delhi High Court. She has studied B.A. Philosophy (Hons) at Hindu College, University of Delhi and LL.B. at the O.P. Jindal Global University.

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