August 13, 2016 9:25:17 am
It was a telling moment in the discussion on the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill when BJP MP Narayanlal Panchariya raised opposition hackles with his blatantly classist anecdote about Shivaji, his mother Jijabai and the maid servant who had dared to breastfeed the future king. It showed how even as the Upper House debated a progressive Bill that not only increased maternity leave from 12-26 weeks but also provided for childcare leaves for adoptive and commissioning mothers in case of surrogacy, the real battle is of mindsets inside and outside the House.
So as men waxed eloquent about the virtues of breast feeding, it was left to the women to point out that the battle is only half won till a similar increment is granted in paternity leaves too so that not only are men equal partners in the domestic sphere in raising a child but also the chances of discrimination against women at the workplace get reduced if men too are entitled to a long childcare leave. The slip showed once again when women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi who has been the force behind the Bill told the House that since a surrogate mother gives up her child the 2-3 weeks sick leave that she is entitled to from her workplace suffices in her case. As DMK MP Kanimozhi pointed out, the statement amounted to treating a woman’s body as a baby-making machine therefore a woman who gives up her baby does not need time to recuperate from her pregnancy.
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The occasional discordant notes notwithstanding, there is no taking away from the fact that the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill is a pathbreaking piece of legislation in women’s empowerment and in tackling India’s chronic problem of child malnutrition. Last year, the Rapid Survey of Children conducted by the ministry of women and child development threw up some astounding figures. It found 29.4 per cent of children to be underweight, 15 per cent were wasted (low weight for their height) and 38.7 per cent were stunted (low in height for age). Though there are still some naysayers, the overall consensus among nutrition experts and international organisations working on child health is that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months or a child’s life can dramatically better nutrition levels. With a mother now entitled to six and half months leave to nurse her baby regardless of the sector she works in, the economic hurdles in that have been effectively removed.
As the Rajya Sabha debate showed, social change will take longer.
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