I get a little frustrated with conversations about 'gender'. It is almost as if we were talking about an interesting vase on the dining table, or a new kind of fruit.
As if, it has nothing to do with the salaries we draw, the amounts we spend on travel and/or self-indulgence, our health, our place in newspapers, the status of the kitchen sink, the vocational courses offered by the ashram for rescued street children. As if, gender was something to be tucked into a recycled paper folder, on a conference table.
Every conversation about gender or feminism quickly disintegrates into 'emancipation' or 'but it should not become a man vs woman debate' or 'learn to be equal, first'.
In recent memory, not one person (politician/activist/student/feminist/writer/friend) has spoken to me about gender from the perspective of motherhood. About the economics of motherhood.
Three months' paid leave, yes. Creches at the work-place, yes. But what about the fact that, despite maternity benefits, a new mother often runs the risk of becoming an economic liability unto herself? Because, with a baby in her arms, it is not easy to cook, clean, commute, stay up late working on projects, functioning on too little sleep.
It is easy to say - let the man take half the burden. What happens when there is no man in the picture? Because, often, there isn't. In any case, that argument is a flawed one, based on the assumption that every mother WANTS to be married/live with a man. What if she doesn't? Where does she get financial help, or social support?
And why are Indians not pushing the boundaries further? Are three months enough? Is it fair to expect a mother to return to work with a three-month old infant? Let me put it this way - does society want three-month old infants in day-care centres, to be taken home by a frazzled mother who must go on working - cooking, cleaning, etc? Is that the ideal way to bring up a generation?
Another question - do we, as a people, as a species, accept that children are our collective responsibility? That children belong to the world, and the world must do its bit to bring them up?
In a world where men do not always assume paternal responsibilities, especially if they have not legally married the mother, how do we make them do their bit? If men were wild creatures like wolves or penguins or something, one could count upon them to feed the young ones, and let the mother recover. Since this trait, however, does not seem to be part of their DNA, how do we, as a world, make men pay their share of the price for the continuation of the species?
Like the USA, do we keep track of fathers, using the law to hunt them down, and MAKE them pay for their biological children? Or do we impose a tax on ALL men, to extend social security to ALL pregnant women?
Do we extend maternity benefits to a year, or eighteen months? Or does the mother quit her job, avail of social support for upto eighteen months, and then look for a new job?
But what happens next? When the benefit-zone comes to an end, do we welcome this not-so-new mother back into the work force? By all reports, we do not.
According to a study, "Mothers face greater discrimination in finding a job than disabled people, Asian women and the elderly, new government research has found.
Women returning to work after starting a family face the highest 'personal employment penalty' of any group in society - they are around 40 per cent less likely than the average white, able-bodied man to be offered a post, says the study."
If we do nothing at all, if we expect that women will fight for equality, on men's terms, and deal with the world of men, by trying to turn into men, this is what you will be confronted with - a baby shortage.
"Britain is suffering a baby 'shortage' with potentially disastrous consequences as work pressures force young women to shelve plans for a family, according to dramatic new research, urging an £11bn campaign to boost parenthood. Women have not turned against becoming mothers and, if they could have the number of children they actually wanted, more than 90,000 extra babies a year would be born."
India is young. India does not yet have the spectre of an aged, dependent majority looming over a shrinking work-force. But we'll get there, some day. It would not hurt to prevent a crisis, for once.