Longer maternity leave empowering

Women working in the private sector will be entitled to longer maternity leave, with the labour ministry accepting the Women and Child Development Ministry’s proposal in this respect. The proposal is to extend maternity leave from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks. Women in government service get six months maternity leave and those in the private sector should also have the same entitlement. The government intends to amend the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 for this very soon. The proposal is welcome because it will be a socially and economically useful and empowering measure for women. Companies which employ women will also benefit from the measure. The proposal is based on the fact that six months of breastfeeding is needed to combat malnutrition, diarrhoea and other diseases among children and to lower infant mortality rate. Breastfeeding practices are poor in India, compared to even other South Asian countries. More than half of the over 26 million children born in the country every year are considered to be deprived of optimal feeding practices.

A longer maternity leave will help in better breast-feeding of children. It has been observed all over the world that it will result in lower infant mortality rates and better infant health. Women’s health also improves when they have more days to take care of themselves post-delivery. It also creates a better environment for women in offices. Many women sacrifice their careers or make compromises at their workplace to be able to look after their children. They also absent themselves disruptively from work to look after ailing children. A longer maternity leave will help them. Companies will also benefit. Women will not have to leave their jobs for child birth as many do now. That will reduce turn-
over which only hurts companies. Companies will have more women’s representation and gender diversity. Women’s participation in the workforce in India is much below the world average and it has to improve.

It is wrong to assume that companies will be reluc-tant to employ women because they will have to be given longer maternity leave. They will actually be better off with a stable, satisfied and less anxious workforce. Many companies in India offer up to six months of maternity leave even now without the law mandating it. Over 40 countries in the world offer more than 18 months of maternity leave and some give one year of fully paid leave. The government should consider how women workers in the unorganised sector can also benefit from the measure.

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