Last week, the world hailed New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s momentous decision to approve the miscarriage bereavement legislation, giving mothers and their partners the right to paid leave for three days, following a miscarriage or stillbirth.
"The bill will give women and their partners time to come to terms with their loss without having to tap into sick leave. Because their grief is not a sickness, it is a loss. And loss takes time,” said said Labour Party MP Ginny Andersen, who initiated the bill.
New Zealand is the second country in the world to legalise the leave, only after India that brought in this benefit for women as early as 1961. In India, the miscarriage leave extends to six weeks of paid leave under the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 1961.
The law states, “In case of miscarriage, a woman shall, on production of such proof as may be prescribed, be entitled to leave with wages at the rate of maternity benefit for a period of six weeks immediately following the day of her miscarriage.”
India might have been way ahead of the curve, yet the implementation of the law is a lost cause.
Tokenism at its best
After her miscarriage, Shikha Punamiya (37), a corporate professional, wanted to take sick leave for a few days. On informing her HR, she was asked to get well within “two days”, because of too much “work pressure”.
“Despite working with a well-known corporate, I was not offered this benefit. Honestly, I didn’t know that a miscarriage law exists in our country; it was only after a chat with a colleague that I learnt of it. My HR didn’t pay heed to it, and asked me to get back to work at the earliest. I only wish they had a little empathy for what I went through,” she adds.
The miscarriage law in India also offers additional paid leave policies in case of sickness caused by the miscarriage. It certainly sounds great on paper, but there are multiple loopholes in its implementation. Moreover, employers are refrained from imposing strenuous work on pregnant women, which may increase the chances of a miscarriage.
“After I suffered a miscarriage, I took sick leave for a few days. Not many people understand that miscarriage can both be emotionally and physically draining. Even after having a heart-to-heart conversation with my HR, who is also a woman, she asked me not to extend my leave beyond 10 days. She said she really wanted to help me, but she was helpless,” says Aarti Kumar (32), a software professional from New Delhi.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 2.6 million babies are stillborn and an estimated 85 percent of miscarriages take place every year, before the 12th week of pregnancy. Media reports also reveal that Indian women are at a higher chance of miscarriages, especially during their first pregnancy.
“Most women in India are not aware of this law and policy. Miscarriage is a taboo not just in India but also worldwide, often seen through the prism of shame and sitgma. At a time when women need utmost care and affection, they fail to receive it. 1 in 4 women around the globe have experienced a miscarriage, thus it is very important to be understanding and compassionate when a woman and her family are going through this crisis,” says Dr Somdutta Singh, Founder and CEO, Assiduus Global.
Startups: Paving the way for inclusive workspaces
Legacy-based companies and corporates are still “taking their time” to implement progressive practices. Startups, on the other hand, are more forward in their approach.
Serial entrepreneur Bhavna Juneja, co-founder of asset management firm MPowered, has been well-aware of the miscarriage law and is in favour of granting this leave.
“It’s a very emotional time for a woman, and supporting our team members in their time of need is what truly makes us a family. As a woman, I know the challenges and changes one's body goes through during this time. So, as an organisation we would do everything we can to support our people and help them heal,” she says, adding that their company extends this leave to males as well.
Dr Singh feels that companies who are extending the miscarriage leave to women are not doing them “any favour”.
“Women need to be made to feel comfortable and empowered no matter what the situation is. A miscarriage or a stillbirth still remains a topic fraught with pain and stigma. While they are going through tremendous pain, all we can do is to give them the time to mourn and make peace with what has just happened, physically and psychologically,” she adds.
Sreedha Singh, co-founder at The Ayurveda Co believes there needs to be increased awareness regarding such policies so that women can uphold their rights.
“It is essential to educate masses about the existence of this policy. One can find out more under the Maternity Benefit Act. With my professional experience, I've realized it is imperative to be sensitive towards others when you're a policymaker or in a decision-making role at an organisation. It is important to understand the challenges and give solutions within the framework of the organisation. At times, these can be exclusive to a gender, but in general, with authority comes the responsibility for the greater good,” she says.
The progress is slow but steady; maybe that’s our “silver lining” for now!
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)