NEW DELHI - Neda Saiyyada was among a handful of women in India whose company gave her six months of maternity leave last year instead of the mandatory three months. The extended leave helped the young mother enormously.
“When I was pregnant, my biggest worry was that I will not be able to leave my child,” she said. “In three months the child is nothing, can’t even hold the neck straight, and my child was eating and sitting up straight when I joined back, so it was a blessing in disguise.”
About 1.8 million women working in India’s formal sector will soon be legally entitled to get the extended maternity leave that Saiyyada was so grateful for after parliament passed a landmark bill earlier this month doubling maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks.
WATCH: India maternity leave
India is joining a handful of countries, such as Canada and Norway, that give women generous paid leave of six months or more.
Besides boosting maternal and child health, experts hope the longer maternity leave will encourage more women to return to work and help close a growing gender gap in a country where women account for about one-quarter of the workforce.
Women in workforce
Shachi Irde, executive director of the nonprofit Catalyst India Women’s Research Center, worried that the number of women in the workforce is not only small, it has been declining.
“In 2004 to 2005 there were about 37 percent women in the workforce, now it has dropped to 29 percent,” she said.
Pointing out that India is the only country facing this downward trend, she said “there are many reasons, but one of them is child care.”
According to a study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, 25 percent of new mothers in India quit their jobs after having their first child. And research by Catalyst shows that family responsibilities make it tougher for women to climb the career ladder: About half of working women do not go beyond junior or midlevel positions.
India has few quality child care facilities and most women fall back on the family to take care of children.
The new law tries to address that problem by making it compulsory for workplaces employing more than 50 people to set up day care facilities.
The extended leave itself also will be a huge help, said Neda Saiyyada, who added, “It will encourage women to stay connected with the workplace.”
Will hiring drop?
However some human resource professionals fear the new bill could discourage employers from hiring women, particularly small companies that would see the extended maternity leave as an additional burden.
“For businesses, it is just not easy to not have an employee for six months,” said Sairee Chahal, founder of SHEROES, a portal for women job seekers. “Instead of saying we will hire you as an employee, they will hire you for noncore roles or for more modular roles so this does not fall on them.”
She pointed out that maternity leave has been doubled at a time when the organized sector is facing multiple challenges and shorter business cycles.
“It (companies) is also under churn of a different kind, under churn of automation, under churn of globalization. So all those trends are overpowering it at this stage,” she said.
Others say the government should also have looked at involving both parents in the extended leave period instead of only making the provision for the mother.
But in a country that is coping with a huge population of 1.3 billion people, the 26 weeks of leave will only be given for the first two children, and women would only be entitled to 12 weeks for a third child.
The bill also brings no benefits to women working in the informal sector, which employs as much as 90 percent of the female workforce. That includes housemaids, laborers or workers in small workshops, who do not get entitlements such as paid leave.
But for the time being, those who stand to get six months off are celebrating.
Traptika Chauhan who is expecting a baby in August was “extremely, extremely relieved” when she heard about the passage of the bill. She pointed out that with more and more people staying in nuclear families, child care is a challenge for working couples.
“I don’t have my parents who stay here or my in-laws who stay here. Then it is really difficult to leave such a small baby all by himself or herself and leave for work,” she said. “Plus your own body is trying to cope up so extremely, extremely great news and perfect for me.”