New Zealand Parliament-led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern approved legislation on March 24 that will offer employees three days’ leave for stillbirth or miscarriage. This is irrespective of gender meaning that both partners can avail of the leave.
Interestingly, India is among the few countries that already have a legal mandate for the past 60 years to offer miscarriage leave, though it is currently available only to women. However, what is the key focus is the implementation loopholes.
The Maternity Benefit Act 1961 states that in case of miscarriage, a woman will be entitled to paid leave for six weeks immediately following the day of her miscarriage. Women are required to submit proof for miscarriage and wilful termination of pregnancy (abortion) is excluded.
Additionally, women suffering illness arising out of miscarriage shall, on production are also entitled to paid leave of upto one month on submission of relevant medical proofs.
Other countries typically only provide miscarriage leave if stillbirth occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy. As per Indian laws, there is no prescribed time period post after which this miscarriage leave is provided. The Act states that miscarriage means expulsion of the contents of a pregnant uterus at any period prior to or during the 26 weeks of pregnancy.
Indian laws are progressive, no doubt, but companies often don’t pay heed to the legal requirement.
Nikhat Saeed, a software developer from Hyderabad has been undergoing fertility treatment for close to 15 months. But she has already suffered two miscarriages.
“I would end up taking sick leave after a miscarriage but it was emotionally and physically draining. I know that six weeks’ leave is permitted but I was informed by my HR at the technology firm I work in that only up to one week is permissible. Beyond that, my pay would be deducted,” she said.
Saeed did not take any leave in fear of hostile behaviour by her office and concerns around being overlooked for placement.
Similar stories were narrated by Manasi Subburaj, a teacher at an international school in Mumbai, and Pratiksha Chawla, a bank manager in Kolkata.
Subburaj and Chawla faced miscarriages in their first pregnancies in 2018 and 2020. Subburaj had sought 10 days leave while Chawla wanted one week leave.
“My miscarriage was close to the final examinations and hence the school management said that leave will not be granted. I took one day of sick leave and came back to work,” said Subburaj.
Chawla, on the other hand, lost her child after 14 weeks due to a health ailment and sought leave to cope with the trauma.
“Ironically, my team lead who is also a woman told me that this is ‘common’ and that I should not ‘make a big deal out of it’. Maybe it is common but if I am entitled to this leave and I need it physically and emotionally, why shouldn’t I,” said Chawla.
Chawla quit the job two months later and is now an independent financial consultant in Kolkata.
For those in blue-collar jobs, the story is far worse. Kalpana Bhavin who is a housekeeping staff at an electronics factory in the outskirts of Mumbai has faced three miscarriages so far.
After every instance, she has simply gone back to the factory because she knows that leaves are not available.
“I cannot afford to take leave and sit at home because there will be a pay cut,” she added.
Exact data on miscarriages in India is not available. However, a recent study said India has the highest stillbirth rates in South Asia. A 2015 study had also said that Indian women have the highest chances of miscarriage in their first pregnancy compared to other ethnicities.
Women like Chawla, Saeed, Bhavin, and Subburaj could have taken the legal route to seek relief. But they chose not to, citing financial strains and concerns around future career prospects.
The emotional trauma is often ignored and women not being allowed to avail of miscarriage leaves could in fact be detrimental to workplace productivity.
While presenting the bill in New Zealand, Ginny Andersen, the Labour member of Parliament said that this leave would give women the confidence to be able to request that leave if it was required, as opposed to just being stoic and getting on with life, when they knew that they needed time, physically or psychologically, to get over the grief.
India is decades ahead of the globe in terms of getting the legal hurdles removed. All that is left to do is to implement it across all companies.