Monday, November 06, 2006

A new kind of fruit.

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.


the mad momma said...

Funny that you should write this right now. I just applied for a freelance job with a magazine in another city. All went well and as i was about to take it on, I mentioned that I am a mother and also pregnant with my second child. The editor didn't even have the decency to get back to me and tell me the job was no longer open to me.

Vivek Kumar said...


Please read this article by Tim Harford.


Ambar said...

Or do we impose a tax on ALL men, to extend social security to ALL pregnant women?

Why should a man (or a woman for that matter) pay for someone else to propagate their freeloader gene pool?

Vikrum said...

Hi Annie,

I thought your post was provocative but I have a few problems with it.

First, practicality: It would be nice if the Indian government kept track of deadbeat dads (as the federal and state governments do in the United States), but you need to remember that India is a country in which most births are not reported by the government and most financial transactions are black. This is in contrast to the United States, in which practically everything is recorded by computer (financial transactions, births, deaths, medical records, etc.). It's not that hard to track down a person in the US. It is nearly impossible in India. My point: even if the willpower were there in India (sadly, it isn't), tracking down deadbeat fathers would be unfeasible.

Second, the idea of a baby shortage in India: I understand your point about baby shortage in general, but I don't think India will reach that point anytime soon. As UN development human reports and other analyses have shown, India is primarily an agricultural nation – and a nation that is still growing at a fast rate. India's population is mostly young and India's population will overtake China's as the biggest in the world in a generation or so. In order for India to have a "baby gap," the country will need to conquer malnutrition, infant mortality, massive illiteracy (especially female illiteracy), and lack of opportunity. And I do not think these devils will be conquered in my lifetime.

Third, blaming the baby shortage on the lack of women-friendly legislation. While I agree with your point that the majority of countries do not have enough legislation to protect pregnant women and mothers, I do not think that we can look at legislation as the "smoking gun" that explains Europe's declining birthrate. We also need to look at levels of development. In wealthy countries it is exceedingly expensive to raise children. Even in countries with outstanding legislation for parents, the birthrates are too low. For example, Sweden is a country in which maternal and paternal rights are taken very seriously: women there are entitled to 16 months at 80% of their salary, and fathers are entitled to 10.5 months at 80% salary (you may want to see this page for more info). If even Sweden has a declining birthrate, you cannot put all of the blame on legislation itself.

Actually, the phenomena goes further than economics and legislation. We also need to look at culture. I have met many women in both North America and Europe who have no desire to have children (much less get married – in fact, I've met more women who want to have children without marriage than women who want marriage and no children – but that is a different story). The point is that all the legislation in the world cannot change the preference of so many women (and men) who do not want to have children.

a correspondent said...

Well, if we talk of crises India is going to face in the future, why only talk about mothers?

You have religious riots, social instability and barbarism that can result from skewed male-female sex ratio, a majority of women in India being molested on our streets, rising rural poverty and farmer suicides, child abuse, ineffective and slow moving judiciary...

Any day, I believe those are issues are much larger and a priority than alloting more than 3 months for mothers... Bigger crises happen in India daily.

Maternity benefits are worth fighting for, and should be fought. However, let us not lose track of priorities either. Crises are nothing new. A working mother is 'working', which already implies that she is live (one crisis defeated), mother - not dead during childbirth (another crisis averted), and an alive child (anot another statistic.

I am all for men taking half the burden of a child - provided, its well and clearly understood beforehand. Have you negotiated the use of condoms or not? Is the female fertile? In case of pregnancy, what happens? If pregnancy happens without discussing specifics, and the man doesn't want the child, and doesn't want to spend money either, does he have 50 % right to demand that the fetus should be aborted? If the mother has absolute control over her body and is the only one who can take a decision on it, should she not take absolute responsbility for the child too? Or perhaps, the child is her choice to give birth to but the man too is responsible, should we try to relate his social/ biological responsibility to the percentage of the costs he should bear?

Annie Zaidi said...

mad momma: a sesitive editor is a rare thing. :) that aside, hope you are doing well
vivek: thanks for the link. i did read it.
ambar: there is a difference between our worldviews, it seems. you speak of 'their freeloader gene pool'. I believe that all children belong to all of us. at least, as far as responsibility is concerned.
vikrum: there are a lot of problems out there. but just as poverty and education are not isolated, similarly, gendered violence and maternity benefits are not isolated. they are parts of one large cycle, and I beleive that all of them can and should be tackled simultaneously.
but I was not suggesting any particular format as a solution. if you noticed, all I did was ask questions. I see a problem and I wonder what we're going to do about it.
because, even if we don't have a baby-gap any time soon, I still think that the economics of maternity is a serious problem. question is - are we going to address this problem or not?

about a fall in the desire for children, perhaps we should be asking why? (I already know, but perhaps that is a conversation best taken up on email) unless, we as a society have come to the conclusion that not having babies does not matter. in which case, all is well, I suppose.

dancewithshadows: if you've been following this blog, you will probably be aware that I do not 'only talk of mothers'. much of my writing IS about crises surrounding food, education, violence etc. but all this talk of priorities is damning. i will try and explain in detail in a subsequent post

kuffir said...

'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?'

i had asked you a similar question as a comment on this post -
you hadn't replied to that.

Annie Zaidi said...

kuffir: i had not continued that debate because (perhaps, incorrectly) i got the feeling that you were unwilling to join the dots in the picture. yes, i believe that all children have claims on all of us. i also believe that there's not much you can do for kids, if the parents are in desperate circumstances. unless, of course, there is a revolution and marriage and family are disbanded as concepts, and all kids collectively raised with parents having no say in their upbringing. since that is not likely to happen (and I'm not entirely sure if that is desirable), i believe in trying to create a system whereby parents are not forced to take advatage of their own kids, or neglect their nutrition/eduction/protection. if they continue to do so, without needing to, they don't deserve to keep those kids. will elaborate perhaps, in a later post

kuffir said...

no one is forcing parents to take advantage of their children - they are free individuals..and we have seen that they do take advantage of their children. one could argue that parents are forced by their circumstances to do so. so what do you present as solutions? 1)strengthen the parents' economic position, 2)support for poor, working mothers..
i am asking you to connect the dots in a different way - start focussing on the children and think about their rights first (BECAUSE THEY'RE NOT CAPABLE OF THINKING ON THEIR OWN OR OF FIGHTING FOR THEIR RIGHTS). childhood rights are as important as rights of the working classes or women or other disadvantaged groups. so what are childhood rights ? nutrition, - the WHO has a whole long list.
the policies of our govt and our own concerns have long focused on only one aspect of the rights of the poor - how to improve families' incomes/entitlements? those policies haven't worked very effectively until now. shift the focus of policies (not our concerns, mind)and focus on the child instead...and work your policies around them. we still think illiteracy happens primarily because..the parents are poor. i'll not go into that issue now ..but i'd like to point out there are other important factors too - like lack of schools themselves. our focus on incomes until now (even now)has made us blind to the fact that govt after govt gets away with paying as little attention as possible (and budgets as little resources)..towards education. so, even if the poor parent wants to send his/her child to school..there isn't any school to go to..or, if there is one it isn't attractive enough to change the mindset of people long accustomed to think of education as an unnecessary skill for the poor.
if we make the child the focus of policies..or recognize the rights of children , we'd work towards improving education, healthcare, nutrition, sanitation and so on..thereby providing families with resources to better their lives.
the 'improve-income' approach has neither improved the lives of the weakest constituents among the constituency of the poor..nor improved public facilities that'd have at least made the poor better equipped to deal with poverty in at least a generation.
maybe we should start thinking from the 'bottom' up - from the child to the family. from causes - poor education, healthcare, sanitation and other public goods to outcomes - like reduction in poverty and improvement in incomes and so on.
maybe, we should also start acknowledging the fact that there are rights of the working classes, there are women's rights and there are childhood rights..and sometimes they may not all mean the same thing.

Unknown said...


I know how bad it is. When a colleague wanted to take leave for child birth she was allowed to, but without pay. She wasn't paid for three months though she was in confirmed employment.

Really nobody cares about a mother and it's a bad thing. I have seen women construction workers with days old babies working hard in the sun. If she doesn't, she will have to go hungry.

Is there no benefit, guarantee, insurance, planning for a woman to make this a time of being cared for? Every woman looks forward, even craves motherhood, but with these hurdles they may even postpone motherhood, or, wouldn't want it at all.


Anonymous said...

The construction worker, , the women who work in our houses, have no place to leave their children. They cant take leave for three months forget 18 months at 80 per cent.
It is actually a good idea that every man should be taxed for child care.
Maybe that would also help the govt to open day care centres for poor mothers every two kilometers in big cities. It is possible to cover much of the area as there already exist anganwadis which can be turned into creches . All government schools also can add some space for this purpose. Private companies who are so keen to use their CSR to advertise themselves, should be asked to spend 20 pe cent of their charity for this purpose.
But educated mothers who stand on their own feet can actually do without the grudging assistance from any man in the country. Men just cant take so much strain. No wonder nature did not let them bear children.

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