• In Plato’s Republic, he described his ideal state; in the Laws, the second-best. In the first, he called for families to be abolished and for…
In Plato’s Republic, he described his ideal state; in the Laws, the second-best. In the first, he called for families to be abolished and for child-rearing and education to be made the all-important task of the state; in the second, he doesn’t. In the first, he includes women in his vision of public life, including war and governance; in the second, he restricts them to household work. The central idea that emerges from this comparison is that for a woman, marriage/family and domesticity cannot co-exist with public life.
The Indian state has steadfastly adhered to two ideas – that a woman is primarily defined by motherhood and domesticity, and that child rearing is exclusively a mother’s responsibility. This viewing of women (across class differences) is reflected in almost all state policies aimed at “women’s welfare”, so often clubbed with ‘child development’. The recommendations of the 6th pay commission and the eventual action taken on them by the central government, along with new schemes on mid-day meals for girls, are only the most recent manifestation of this perspective.
The pay commission recommended an increase in maternity leave to 180 days, and additional paid “childcare” leave up to 2 years for women to take care of minor children, – not just during infancy, but also for examinations and sickness (both accepted) as well as flexible working hours for married women to meet the dual demands of home and work (not accepted). All these measures are termed “gender-sensitive” provisions, “keeping in view the dual responsibilities of working women and increasing practical difficulties in balancing work and family responsibilities”.
Likewise, announcements regarding mid-day meal schemes routinely made by governments are accompanied by exhortations that mothers monitor these schemes to ensure the child’s well-being. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) proclaim that ‘no programme on early childhood care and education can succeed unless mothers are also brought within its ambit as it is in the lap of the mother that human beings learn the first lessons in life’. Meanwhile, that the government pays scant attention to the service conditions of the anganwadi workers who are the backbone of the ICDS scheme. These workers, often women from poor families, are paid a pittance as “honararium” as their work is considered voluntary, despite the fact that their services are used for implementing a range of government activities at the local level. Of course, as they are not regular government employees, no pay commission covers them.
The 5th pay commission had introduced paternity leave for the grand total of 15 days. As a simple web search demonstrates, actually availing of it is considered newsworthy. The 6th pay commission goes a step further by locating not just early childcare but care for the entire duration of childhood in the mother’s domain. That the male employee is also most likely a father and that fathers can take care of children during sickness or help in exams appears beyond the comprehension of the state.
That motherhood would “rightfully” encroach on a woman’s employed life is somehow deeply internalised in society even as work participation rates among women continue to rise. The older debate of whether a woman should work or not after marriage has been eclipsed by the near-acceptance of the need to work. Notwithstanding saas-bahu serials vilifying working women, employability is a much sought out qualification in the marriage market – as evidenced by matrimonial ads. However, that increase has not changed the distribution of roles and responsibilities within the household, despite what the glossies say on the new age man. What happens as middle-class household income increases is the reallocation of household responsibilities to servants, often under the supervision of the mother/mother-in-law. This internalisation explains the near absence of any discussion or analysis on these recommendations of the pay commission in the past 6 months even as almost all other aspects have been subject to intense scrutiny and debate.
At another level, it is important to note the disconnect between the state’s policies and the demands of women themselves. Various studies and reports brought out by women employees’ associations, the women’s and health movement and organisations working on child and maternal health have consistently demanded the provision of daycare and crÃ¨che facilities in or near the workplace. There aren’t any in India. This despite the fact the existing anganwadi infrastructure can easily be expanded to include this vital need. Most studies of the NREGA’s implementation note the failure to provide daycare, despite the Act providing for it.
It makes economic sense to provide day care facilities rather than dole out extra leave. Which employee would choose a year extra leave over assured daycare thoughout childhood near her workplace? That the state finds it easier to dispense with employees for long periods points to both the concentration of women employees in the lower levels of the bureaucracy and its strange misperception of “rights”.
We do not have to abolish the family, like Plato did, in order to socialise child care or ensure gender equality; but surely we can recognise that child rearing is both the shared responsibility of the partners and the collective responsibility of society and that only equal and happy families will result from a state genuinely interested in the welfare of its citizens – women, men and children.