Debate on paternity leave: Making haste slowly?


The paternity leave debatesparked off by Maneka Gandhi’s statement that for most men it would be a ‘holiday’ raises complex questions. The commentary that Maneka’s statement has attracted has largely been negative, and she herself has subsequently softened her position, underlining the need for a more `sophisticated’ Bill.

Maneka’s views on the question of paternity leave have variously been called `cynical’, `flippant’ and `appalling’ just to name a few descriptors. Many different kind of reasons have been cited for these characterisations. A position like Maneka’s is seen to potentially reinforce gender stereotypes (it is the woman’s job to look after the children, men should focus on `work’). It does not recognise that some change is already underway , and that not all men conform to an archetype of an earlier time. It accentuates the difference between men and women in the workplace and further de-motivates employers from hiring women, particularly when read along with the new Maternity Bill, which increases maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks. Conceptually , it shies away from using legislation to bring about desired social change; if such an argument were to be accepted, no discontinuous legislation whether to do with racial equality, inheritance laws, or caste discrimination would have passed muster.

And yet, one would be deluding oneself if one failed to recognise that the minister is painting a largely realistic picture of the situation as it stands in the country today . While it is certainly true that more men today are willing to share the responsibility of bringing up children, the larger picture is that in aggregate terms, this sharing tends to be very limited in quantity and quite patchy in quality . If that were not the case, the overall gender picture in India would have been much healthier. As the minister argues, if indeed men feel the need to participate more actively in the task of child-rearing, there should some evidence of such a need.That paternity leave would turn into a holiday for men is an argument that could have been overlooked given the larger statement such an action would make about shared responsibility, but for the reality that in many cases, having the husband at home could actually increase the woman’s burden. Even in instances where the men intend to be of help, the larger cultural ecosystem has created a pattern of expectations whereby the woman could still end up looking after her husband in addition to the newborn.
The relationship between existing social norms and the forces of change has always been a tense one. A vital element that is missing from the mix today is the internal impulse within traditional systems for reform.

In this case, however, the fact is that mainstream social and work that mainstream social and workplace norms have simply not kept pace with the times. Women are now a critical part of the organised workforce, and the support of large families that shared the responsibilities of bringing up children is increasingly a thing of the past. And while the attitudes of men have been slow to change, it is important to find ways to accelerate this process. Unless new norms are put in place, we are in danger of creating an untenable system where children end up paying the price and women feel increasingly torn between the multiple roles that they need to play . Society has to find ways to make child-rearing viable, and if it cannot do so on its own, then it needs to be helped along.In this case, it is clear that change is necessary and that legislation must lead it. Neither the traditional social organisations nor employers in the workplace are likely to take the lead; the law will have to step in. But the reason for this legislation cannot just be that it makes the right statement about gender equality; it must improve the lives of the people it is meant for. Which is why discussion and debate are important, for only when this conversation moves beyond a limited few that grounds can be laid for more sustainable change.This is not procrastination, but a necessary period of adjustment and calibration. Without acknowledging the reality that new ideas must work through, there is a real danger of pushing through change that stays on paper. Or worse, damages the cause of the very people that it is trying to help.
 There are questions that need to be answered. Can an action that is progressive but distant in terms of current behaviour be used to modify behaviour or does it become mere tokenism or worse, further deepen the problem it is trying to solve? Should legislation be a kind of `statement’ of an idealised intent and define how things should be or is it the setting of enforceable boundaries within which cultures must find their own answers?

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