Will new maternity law help keep Indian women in work?

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Media captionSome fear extending maternity leave will deter firms from hiring women in the first place

In a few weeks, it will be time for new mum Rashmi Sharma to go back to work as a teacher. Her daughter Arya is five months old and is just beginning to roll over. Rashmi got 12 weeks of paid leave from her company, as Indian laws mandate, and then took three extra months off without pay.

Not all employers grant additional leave though, and with expenses shooting up after having a baby, the Indian government's plan to increase maternity benefits from 12 to 26 weeks of paid leave, is being welcomed by mothers and women's rights groups in the country.

It will need parliamentary approval, but India's women and child development minister has said the government is committed to making the amendment to the maternity benefits law as soon as possible.

"I wish it's something that would have come in time for me," says Rashmi. "Three months is too [little]. Six months, I would say, is a fair amount of time to spend with your newborn before going back to work."

Image caption Rashmi will shortly be returning to her job as a teacher at an outdoor education company

It would certainly make things easier for women who have just had babies. But is it enough to keep them from quitting their jobs to take care of their children?

Maternity leave entitlements around the world

India: 12 weeks at full pay (currently)

UK: 39 weeks of paid leave, 90% of pay for first six weeks

China: 14 weeks, paid at least the average wage at the company

US: 12 weeks, employers not obliged to pay anything

Patriarchal mindsets

A survey by industry body Assocham recently found that a quarter of Indian women give up their careers after having a baby.

That's in a country where female participation in the workforce is already very low, ranking among the worst in major global economies. Women make up only a quarter of all workers employed, a number that has shrunk over the past decade.

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Image caption Many women say they are made to feel guilty about going back to work after having a child

While some women who work in informal sectors are unaccounted for in government data, a major factor is lower levels of education among women because of patriarchal mindsets, which make it harder for them to get a job.

Social attitudes are also a big reason why women choose to quit work after having a baby. Raising a child is largely seen as the mother's job in India, not a shared responsibility between both parents.

I've heard the words "ambitious" and "career-minded" being used to describe women who went back to work after having a baby, and it's not meant as a compliment. Many women have talked about being made to feel guilty about being away from their child.


Then there's the corporate side of things. Even in India's top firms, the gender gap is glaring.

In 2014, when the country's markets regulator ordered all firms listed on the stock exchange to have at least one female director on their board, there was a mad scramble in India Inc. Many companies appointed female relatives of their promoters, and 13% of firms missed the deadline.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some people think more maternity leave will actually cause more problems for women at work

Anurag Shrivastava who runs HRNext, a human resources consultancy, says the sense of discrimination against women is already very high. Questions about when a female candidate plans to get married or have a baby are not uncommon during interviews, although they might be asked in a veiled manner.

Mr Shrivastava thinks extended maternity leave will further increase the bias against women. "Having worked with a lot of managers, and seeing the kind of attitudes they display, I fear for the employment of women in the future," he says.

Childcare difficulties

And even if you are lucky enough to have supportive employers and family, then you're confronted with a more basic problem - where to leave your child while you're at work.

It's something I've seen countless peers struggle with.

Image caption On-site creches for employees to leave their children in are rare

Although more childcare facilities have sprung up in recent years, there are no laws governing them. Different states have different guidelines to regulate creches, but monitoring for quality is rarely done. Those that do comply with the rules are unaffordable for most couples.

Trained nannies are equally rare to find. In most Indian homes it's usually the house help or maid who is trained by the family to care for their child.

There is perhaps a ray of light in this direction though. A handful of companies have begun on-campus creches for their employees in the past two to three years. These include Indian brand Godrej, retail giant Hindustan Unilever and cosmetics firm L'Oreal.

Game changer?

More significantly, the Labour Ministry is considering a proposal to make it compulsory for companies that employ more than 30 women to have childcare facilities, either on campus or a short distance from the workplace.

This could be a real game changer for mothers who want to work. But it will probably be opposed by many in the corporate world, for whom the costs of running a business will increase. And, as is often the case in India, it could be years before it really sees the light of day.

Image caption Many women like Rashmi rely on their mothers or mother-in-laws for help

For now, it is not on the horizon for women like Rashmi.

Her mother-in-law has come to stay to help with baby Arya when she goes back to work. Rashmi is an outdoor educator. She takes groups of children out on camps teaching them about nature and wildlife. She knows it is going to be a difficult balance.

"We'll see how things pan out," she says, as she prepares for a battle that so many Indian women are fighting.

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