Change in the Government’s Child Care Policy Can Revamp Gender Roles

The current system of child care leave for government employees could perpetuate gender stereotypes. A general child care policy could make the system more gender just.

Credit: Reuters/Vivek Prakash.

Credit: Reuters/Vivek Prakash.

The debate over whether it is a change in rules and laws that leads to a corresponding change in society or vice versa is a continuing one. The order is case-specific. When it comes to gender roles that are non-exploitative to everyone, a change in institutions can do more than what is popularly imagined.

The central pay commission (CPC) of the government of India regularly reviews and suggests revisions to the pay structure, leave entitlements and pension benefits of central government employees. The suggestions of the pay commission have the potential to restructure gender roles currently prevalent in society.

The sixth pay commission recommended 730 days of paid child care leave (CCL) to women employed by the central government with regard to children under the age of 18. 

The seventh central pay commission report (2015) has recommended extending CCL to single male parents in employed by the central government. According to the report, “The commission notes that in the event a male employee is single, the onus of rearing and nurturing the children falls squarely on his shoulders.” Taking cognisance of the burdens faced by employees who are single mothers, the commission has recommended the availability of CCL in six spells per year, as opposed to the three spells granted to mothers currently. 

The commission’s recommendations, while progressive, could perpetuate gender stereotypes. Granting CCL only to women employees and single male parents holds up the stereotype that it is women who are the primary caregivers of children and thus responsible for nurturing them. CCL is granted to fathers only when this ‘primary’ caregiver is permanently absent. This underscores the socially constructed role of a woman as a mother.

Ranjay Mooshahary, 39, regional commissioner of the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, welcomes the recommendations of the seventh CPC. His observation as an administrator has been that women are satisfied with the current arrangement and have not demanded CCL for men. He opines that biological differences between men and women must be considered while formulating child care leave policy. His wife and colleague Renu is believes that men might not be as equipped as women are to take care of children. They have a four-year-old girl.

Biologically, women have the ability to give birth. (A discussion on transgender parents has been left out of the scope of this article.) However, this biological function has been assumed to be an ordained role and used as an excuse to justify the continued exclusion of women from higher posts in jobs. It is believed that only a mother is capable of properly nurturing children and, therefore, should sacrifice any ambitions that require her to forsake this ‘natural’ role.

While breast-feeding is a biological function that women can perform, feeding children as they outgrow breast-milk and taking care of them as they grow further can be performed by either parent, regardless of gender. Nothing in science or psychology suggests that fathers cannot perform all social roles and functions expected of and performed by mothers.

When the mother’s physical and emotional bond with the child is much more pronounced than that of the father up to a certain age, the father may find it difficult to take over care-giving roles from the mother after the child has outgrown the age of breast-feeding. This further fuels the idea that women are natural caregivers when it is actually only a matter of practice.

Reforms to the current system

In place of the current system, a general child care leave applicable to both the mother and father may be more desirable. If both parents are government employees, this would mean granting them one year of leave each, if sharing of responsibilities is of essence here.

Currently, CCL is applicable to two children only. However, what about family set-ups where only one parent is a government employee? Should the parent in question therefore be entitled to two years of leave? This could lead to problems, as people of the same gender would be given different leave structures. However, we should consider that the entire block of government employees as one genderless group, male and female employees (broken up into married fathers, single fathers and mothers) are already entitled to different childcare leave structures.

The duration of leave granted to a parent can eventually be varied depending on the involvement of the other parent (not in government employ) in childcare. CCL is intended for the proper care of children; the best interest of children is prime here.

Taking unconventional partnerships into account

A couple in a partnership which consists of them bringing up children could be made entitled to a certain number of days as part of general CCL. How to split this number between them could be left to the couple, subject to certain conditions such as restrictions on both taking leave on the same day as this would take away from both their stocks while subtracting one day from the entitlement of the child.

In the short term, it might be women who avail the entire stock of leave available to a couple. Sanyogita Yadav, 47, a central government employee, welcomes the proposal to extend CCL to male employees. However, she mentions that some of her female colleagues worry that men could misuse it and go on mass leave without contributing to childcare and add to the burden of their wives.

However, with time, a general child care leave policy will encourage women to demand that their partners also take equal responsibility for childcare. Children will benefit from active and equal involvement of both parents and grow up without preset gender roles in mind. S.K. Ritadhi, PhD candidate at University of California, Berkeley, says that having a training course for all public employees – about sharing household responsibility and how this aids overall family welfare – can aid in the matter.

‘Partnership’ need not be marriage-specific. People who are not in a conventional romantic relationship but are involved in bringing up children together should be included in the definition, as should former partners with children between them. General CCL schemes will not need drastic surgery if and when India accepts same-sex unions as legally valid.

Government policy will eventually encourage private firms to follow suit.

CCL also does not take into account an individual’s third child. The question of children born of second (or further) marriages and later partnerships merits serious thought in a society embracing new patterns of relationships.

The widening of the definition of “partnership” has been seen as problematic by many. It is feared that such an inclusion will pave the way for multiple ‘meaningless’ relationships and serial monogamy, resulting in irresponsible parents producing more babies than our economy can handle. Holding parents responsible for the care of children through legislation will make them more responsible about their right to parenthood. If anything, such legislation will make sure that the children born of irresponsible parents have certain safeguards protecting them. Moreover, the stereotype of “bad-partner-means-bad-parent” needs to be seriously challenged.

Many are of the opinion that child care leave should be renamed family care leave. A family includes but is not entirely composed of children. As the provisions of CCL stand exclusively for the benefit of children in the care of parents, a revision of the name seems unnecessary.

Need for social change

Children and child care have often been seen as hindrances to women’s success at work. The way we think about work involves a commitment that often comes at the cost of the time spent nurturing children and women are expected to make the sacrifice if they wish to succeed professionally. In the absence of spousal help, many women find that the rearing of children falls squarely on them. Equality at work comes from equality in domestic responsibilities.

About 15 years ago, there was a cultural shift towards the “Wonder Woman”— the woman who embodied the perfect mother and the perfect professional. As a preteen, I lapped up that subliminal message about women from television advertisements and popular culture.

Any era undergoing a mass transition — in this case, the large entry of women in the workforce — needs such myths. That was a period when many worried that women being in the workforce would lead to them neglecting the household. Hence, the Wonder Woman was conjured up – a woman who could have it all! That myth lead to burnouts among women as sustaining a work-and-home labour routine proves to be very exhausting.

The advertising agency FCB Ulka conducts a series of studies titled WomanMood every seven years to understand the changing Indian woman. WomanMood I from 2001 notes: “Working women are aspirational, but they are evaluated by how good a homemaker they are.”

Changes in the government’s child care leave policy could bring us a step closer to a society with changed attitudes towards gender roles, one in which everyone is able to live without being enslaved by age-old societal norms.