Rights and Wrongs of Maternity Leave

I Call myself a feminist. This amuses many men who believe feminists must be female. For the same reason it also amuses many women, some of whom add that I am not highly visible in supporting womens’ organisations.

I can only say that I regard feminism as being about basic rights and liberties of all people regardless of sex. The notion that feminists should be female is just the sort of thinking that feminism needs to fight.

Nor should womens’ organisations be equated with feminists. Some of them, act as lobbies for farmers or unionised labour. Lobbyists, whether for labour, farmers or women, always speak in the name of the poor and oppressed, but often end up demanding laws and rules that will actually benefit only a privileged section of their members. In a democracy, such lobbies have a perfect right to press their claims. But this must not be confused with the pursuit of equal rights.

A case in point is the government proposal to end maternity leave benefits (notably three months’ paid leave) to female employees having a third child. The government sees this as legitimate way of encouraging family planning, while many (but not all) women’s organisations say it militates against the rights of women.

EQUALITY? As a feminist, I would like to pose the issue in more fundamental terms-to what extent does maternity leave promote equality of rights? We need to look at equality across sexes, across women themselves, and across income groups.

First, the gender issue. Maternity leave affects entire families, not women alone. In most families, husband and wives pool their income and income income lost by either side affects the other. If a women bearing, a child no longer gets paid for three months, that affects the living standard of the whole family, males as well as females, children as well as parents. Male chauvinists in some families may cut their own living standards only slightly and let the women of the house bear the brunt of cuts, but that is not always so. Besides, when a mother dies in childbirth, the cost of attending to the baby falls on the father and his relatives. So this is in fair measure a family issue, not a pure women’s issue.

WHO BENEFITS?: Which class of women benefit from maternity leave? Only fixed-wage employees in the organised sector. These account for no more than 8 per cent of the female workforce, (and not even 4 per cent if we include women doing valuable, but unpaid work looking after their homes and families). The remaining 92 per cent of the female workforce is either casual labour, or self-employed (this category includes farmers, artisans like handloom weavers, and those running shops or businesses).

A female agricultural or construction labourer gets no maternity leave. Nor does a female hawker or seamstress running a shop. And of course housewives get nothing. Yet all of them bear children, all need to stop working for health reasons, in which case all suffer a fall in lilving standards. A female agricultural labourer foregoes wages, a street hawker forgoes her profit, a housewife may have to hire somebody for the housework she can no longer do. Yet none of them gets any maternity benefit. And for this reason many continue to work, risking their health and their child’s while the privileged 8 per cent in salaried jobs relax at home, fully paid.

ELITE GROUP: Clearly maternity leave is not a women’s issue at all, but one concerning the tiny minority of women employed in the organised sector. This elite group includes many of the best educated, most vocal and influential people in the country. Many are fine human beings who have done a great deal to further equality and human rights. Yet those espousing maternity leave are espousing an elite cause.

Finally, look at women within the organised sector. Since maternity benefit is expressed as three month’s pay, a female manager earning Rs.10,000 per month gets 10-times as much a sweeper earning Rs. 1,000 per month, which in turn is much more than the zero benefit for casual labourers. Can it really be said that child-bearing places a larger strain on richer women who, therefore, merit higher compensation?

I am not sure society should subsidise children, and even less sure whether it should subsidise more than two children per mother. But if indeed society deems this necessary, it seems to me as a feminist that the subsidy must be a family benefit, not simply a female benefit (i.e., it should also benefit single males adopting children, or families where the mother dies at child-birth). Second, the benefit must be available to all families in the land, not simply to the labour aristocracy.

Third, the subsidy should be a flat sum-the better off should not get a higher subsidy than the poor.

Some feminists will agree with a some of these propositions, and other womens’ organisations are disagree. Too bad. The vested interest of the female elite should not be equated with feminism.

What do you think?