Bengaluru: The landmark Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill 2016, passed in the Lok Sabha on Thursday, exactly a day after International Women’s Day has been widely welcomed by women activists as a historic moment in the country’s progress towards women’s rights. However, while the public sector will by and large follow the law of the land, will a subtle, unspoken discrimination against hiring women come into play, given that the maternity benefits will be borne by the employer and not the government. Instead of a gift from PM Modi, has parliament in one fell stroke, made women of child-bearing age unemployable?
“Discrimination now that the benefits are increased is a possibility,” said Ms Aasha Ramesh, city-based women’s rights activist. It is also important to take the discrimination that exists in the private sector more seriously, she added. “Women have always been asked, in a very subtle way of course, on their plans of having a baby in the near future. This is why it is necessary to come up with a safeguard, a tool, along with this law to prevent this now that the benefits are greater.”
Ms Rubi Chakravarti, writer and activist, who works with the corporate sector, agrees. “It will definitely affect the employability of younger women. Companies will prefer hiring men instead. They will not want to lose a human resource for such a long period of time.” The implementation is the other aspect that should be looked into, Ms Ramesh said. “The funds will be provided by the Women and Child Development for the public sector,” she said.
With the possibility of maternity leaves being misused by employers and no safety checks on its implementation by the corporates, the question arises if it is the right time to introduce a law like this. Ms Donna Fernandes, an activist from Vimochana, says, “We require non-compliance and grievance redressal clauses to make it beneficial. Otherwise, corporates will wriggle out of it.”
Mrs Ramesh said, “This bill was long overdue. What everyone should understand is that maternity is also a contribution to keep the country growing.”
Policymakers should also be sensitised so that the bill can benefit the working women’s population, said Ms Chakravarti. “How many times can you actually go to the HR department and express your fears? A lot needs to be done before the law can work. It should be a systematic change that can be achieved by pragmatic solutions,” she said.