Oh, Maneka Gandhi. Why must you lull us into a false sense of comfort that we finally have a sensible minister in the government – only to dash our hopes right after?
Gandhi, who is the Women and Child Development Minister has been at the helm of various initiatives which are praiseworthy. The initiatives apply to streamlining the adoption process in India, and improving rights for women, children and animals alike. She’s also one of the few ministers who has gone against the NDA grain and voiced her point of view without fear or favour.
Gandhi’s most recent move, has led all women - even those who aren’t mothers – to congratulate her for ensuring the mooting of the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill in the Rajya Sabha on August 11, 2016. The Bill makes it mandatory for women to receive 26 weeks of paid maternity leave, instead of the earlier 12 weeks. The Bill also provides for 12 weeks leave for commissioning or adopting mothers. An initiative which for the first time takes into consideration the fact that non-biological parents of a baby also need to spend time with their adoptive or surrogate children. The Bill also encourages employers to allow new mothers to “work from home”.
Does a lot of credit for Gandhi’s appreciation for mothers lie in the fact that Gandhi herself has been a single mother – and therefore understands the requirements of a child and his or her mother? It would be difficult to remove this reality from her decision.
But just when we were doing a shimmy to the fact that women are finally getting their due thanks to the Women and Child Development Ministry, Gandhi has shown us that we need to control our excitement. Why? Because while Gandhi believes that mothers require every advantage while rearing their children, she doesn’t share the same sentiments for the fathers.
Keeping in mind gender equality and that both parents should share the responsibility for bring up a child, there has been a growing demand for mandatory paid paternity leave. Currently, under the Central Civil Services Leave Rules, all fathers working with the government, both biological and adoptive, are allowed to take 15 days of paid leave. In the private sector, some companies such as McKinsey do provide paternity leave for their male employees, which ranges between a week to a month tops.
But Gandhi’s progressiveness for some reason has hit a roadblock when it comes to acknowledging that fathers should be involved in their children’s early years.
Gandhi has said that she sees no reason why she should support such an amendment. According to her, most men don’t use up the current leave that they are given. In her words, “If men gave me one iota of hope by taking sick leave for child care, then yes, we can think of mooting a proposal for paternity leave.”
Ensuring that we are clear about Gandhi’s low regard for Indian fathers, Gandhi has also said, “Paternity leave can be considered only if, once the woman goes back to work after her 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child. Let me see how many men do that. I will be happy to give it but for a man, it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything.”
Now, I get Maneka Gandhi’s jaundiced view of fathers and their role in bringing up or caring for babies. Yes, the onus over the decades has always fallen on mothers to be the primary caregivers. Men have traditionally been the ones to keep going to work, while the mother stays at home while in the final stages of pregnancy – largely due to being physically incapacitated – and then after the child is born. But maybe someone should let Gandhi know that this is not the 60s, 70s, 80s or even the 90s. The times they are a-changing. Most families are now nuclear families, men have thankfully evolved over time and both parents nowadays are involved in bringing up baby.
Once again, I do not know how much of her own experience in bringing up her son as a single mother has coloured her opinion of the role of fathers in a child’s life. But, for every happy single parent home, there is a happy double parent home. And for every self-sufficient single mother, or absentee father, there are an equal number of involved fathers who share the load or want to share the load.
By refusing to acknowledge a father’s role or interest in bringing up a child, Gandhi is only propagating a stereotype. That of the father being the breadwinner, and the mother being the nurturer. Also, if Gandhi’s bleak view of fathers is taken to be the gospel, maybe by making paternity leave mandatory we would be able to change the parental equation – for the better. That Gandhi thinks that there’s no reason for men to either be more involved or be encouraged to be more involved, is frankly quite disheartening and dated.
Whether paternity leave will be just a holiday for men or not, is left to be seen. But it would definitely be a breather for the mothers, even if for just an hour. It’s great to stand up for women’s rights, but let’s not randomly poop on or slander the men while doing so.