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Govt plans to restrict maternity benefit to first child only. As usual, it’s the women who suffer

One could argue that this step would reflect better in population control. Would it though? Or would just make it far worse for pregnant women who desperately need financial assistance?

Written by Radhika Iyengar |
February 20, 2017 4:07:24 pm
maternity benefit scheme, modi maternity scheme, pm modi, narendra modi, maternity scheme funds, maternity benefit funds, indian express news, india news, latest news Express archive photo

It was slightly over a decade ago in 2005, and frankly quite late in the day, when the Indian government felt the need to introduce gender budgeting. It was slipped into the annual budget as an afterthought, realising that separate policies needed to be established for women – that, development benefits needed to reach women with equal ease as it did men. A year later, in 2006, the Women and Child Development Ministry was established. Prior to that, strangely, it was merely a Department.

The timeline conveys where women and children stood as priorities of successive governments.

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Recently, in a rather surprise move, the Ministry announced that it might be reworking its plan, since it could only provide maternity benefits only to mother and their firstborns. To put it bleakly, the Ministry realized that it didn’t have sufficient funds to provide financial aid to mothers who were pregnant with their second or the third child.

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The budget announced in February this year, set aside a limited budget for the Women and Child Development Ministry. A story reported by The Indian Express (http://bit.ly/2llGSwR) observed that, “This year, Budget allocation for Women and Child Development Ministry is a mere 1 per cent of the total outlay and gender budgeting across ministers remains at 5 per cent of the total outlay.” Interestingly, at the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared that under the Maternity Benefit Scheme, a sum of Rs. 6,000 would be given to women across the country who were pregnant and lactating. With the recent developments underway, it now appears that perhaps, only first-time mothers will benefit from this scheme.

Mothers pregnant with their second child need far more financial aid and other crucial maternity benefits, since they already have one child to look after. Their overall expenditure therefore, is a lot more.

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Demonetization, that led to paralysing the economy, hit women tremendously – especially those who were poor, who did not have bank accounts and therefore pieced together their personal savings in cash. In addition, the note ban led to a spike in the number of domestic violence incidents (http://bit.ly/2l0Qoqu). Keeping this in mind, the government should have designed a Budget that consciously worked towards alleviating the financial stress on women, particularly for those who worked in the unorganized sector and were economically underprivileged. It should have allocated far more funds to the WCD Ministry.

In India, financial assistance to working mothers, particularly those who are poor or self-employed is necessary. There is a disconcerting wide gender pay gap in India, where a woman’s average hourly salary is 30 per cent lower than a man’s (as per the International Labour Organization). Working mothers therefore, need that external financial crutch, which could enable them to afford a relatively comfortable living.

Here are some tough questions then: Isn’t it the Center’s responsibility to protect its citizens – particularly those who are the most vulnerable, i.e. women and children? Shouldn’t the government be held accountable to look after their welfare and well-being? In the aftermath of demonetization, in a desperate attempt to scrounge for funds and keep the economy functioning, did the government feel too inconvenienced to provide sufficient funds for pregnant women?

Of course, one could argue that by limiting the maternity benefit to the first child would reflect better population control statistics, compelling women not to produce more than one child. However, in a male dominated society such as ours, one must keep in mind that often it’s the husband (sometimes, even the in-laws) who pushes a woman to produce more children, driven by the delirious need of a male heir. By denying maternity benefits to women who are expecting their second, third or fourth child, tragically, it is the women who suffer.

In the light of this, the Women and Child Development Ministry should not alter the pre-existing schemes and provisions. If it must, it should work towards improving the conditions for women, not worsen them.

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