NEW DELHI: India will more than double maternity leave, allow work from home and require employers to have crèches to improve maternal and child health and boost a declining female workforce.
A bill approved by parliament late on Thursday increases fully paid leave to 26 weeks from 12 weeks, provides leave for adoptive mothers for 12 weeks, and facilitates a work from home option for nursing mothers.
It also mandates organisations with more than 50 employees to provide crèche facilities and allow the mother at least four crèche visits daily to look after and feed her child.
“The maternity bill is a historic step as it puts us in the top countries in the world that care for new mothers,” Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and children, said on Friday.
India has high rates of child malnutrition, yet only 55 per cent of mothers exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, compared with 70 per cent in neighbouring Nepal and 76 per cent in Sri Lanka.
Female participation in the workforce in India has been declining in recent years, with only 22 per cent of women in working in the formal economy, well below the global average of 47 per cent, according to UN Women.
Extending maternity leave will encourage more women to return to work and help close the gender gap in the labour market, gender experts say, as many women reluctantly drop out of work because they need more time for their newborns.
“Women should not have to choose between becoming a mother and keeping their job, and the amendment of the Maternity Bill is a landmark step in this direction,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of Population Foundation of India.
The move puts India among the most generous countries globally in terms of the amount of maternity leave afforded to women. Canada allows for 50 weeks, while Norway gives 46 weeks.
The government says the law will benefit 1.8 million women in the formal sector, but activists point out around 90 per cent of the India’s female workforce is in the unorganised sector, and remains unprotected and at risk of labour exploitation.
The law, due to come into force after the president’s assent, will apply to all workplaces with 10 or more employees.