Has the Maternity Benefit Act failed Indian Women?

India's maternity act

In India, maternity benefit regulations have existed since the early 20th century. The Mines Maternity Benefit Act of 1941 was India’s first law to deal mainly with maternity benefits. It applied to women who worked in mines and stipulated a six-week paid maternity leave term. Then came the Indian Factories Act of 1948 allowed women working in factories to receive maternity benefits. It mandated a minimum of twelve weeks of paid maternity leave, including six weeks before birth. The Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 was passed to reform and combine the regulations governing maternity benefits for women working in specific companies.

The Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 is important legislation in India. It provides certain benefits and entitlements to pregnant women and new mothers, allowing them to take time off work and receive financial assistance during maternity leave. The act applies to all establishments employing ten or more employees, including factories, mines, plantations, government establishments, and any other organization as notified by the government. A woman is entitled to a maternity leave of 26 weeks, which can be availed up to eight weeks before the expected delivery date. For a woman who has already had two or more children, the maternity leave entitlement is reduced to 12 weeks.

During maternity leave, an employee is entitled to receive a payment equal to the average daily wage for her absence from work. The Maternity Benefit Act 1961 was amended in 2017 to enhance specific provisions, such as extending maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. This amendment aimed to promote the health and well-being of women in the workforce and facilitate their return to work after maternity leave. The payment rate is determined based on the average daily wage the woman earns in the three months preceding her maternity leave. Nursing breaks are provided at different intervals during working hours, and dismissing or discharging a woman during her maternity leave period on the grounds of pregnancy or for any other reason connected with maternity is prohibited. Other benefits include a medical bonus, where a woman is entitled to receive money for medical expenses related to pregnancy and childbirth. 

Issues with the Policy 

The Maternity Benefit Act in India appears to be inclusive, progressive, and pro-women; it is well-intentioned and provides important protections and benefits for women during pregnancy and childbirth. But it has made things worse rather than better. Specific issues and challenges are associated with its implementation. These include limited coverage, lack of awareness, the financial burden on employers, non-compliance, and lack of enforcement. The act applies only to women working in establishments employing ten or more employees, excluding a significant portion of women employed in the unorganized sector. 

The main issue is applicability because most women in India (70 percent) do not participate in the labor sector. In addition, most of those in the labor force (84%) work in the unorganized sector, either for themselves or companies with less than 10 employees, to whom the legislation does not apply. Most employment is informal (58%), even in the organized sector (16%). Hence the law will once more not be applicable. 2% of the working force are potential law-benefitting individuals if we assume that 30% of employees in the organized, formal sector are women (which equals 6.7% of all workers). This indicates that the policy only covers 1% of the target population, leaving the remaining 99% vulnerable to systemic and unjust gender-based discrimination (Rajagopalan, 2019).

Another major problem with the program is that it works against women’s interests and lessens their prospects of finding formal employment rather than the other way around. According to a study on the costs and advantages of the new maternity regulations, at least 26% of the 350 startups and small and medium companies (SMEs) who answered stated that, given the six-month maternity leave benefit expense, they would prefer to hire a male applicant. A little over 40% of those surveyed said they would recruit women but would first weigh the expense against the candidate.

The Way Forward

  • The Maternity Benefit Act should be expanded to include women working in the unorganized sector. This can be done by revising the definition of “employee” and “establishment” to encompass a broader range of employment scenarios, such as domestic workers, daily wage laborers, and women in the informal sector. 
  • Awareness and outreach programs should be conducted to educate women in the unorganized sector about their rights under the Maternity Benefit Act. Financial support should be provided to women in the unorganized sector during maternity leave. Collaboration with employers should be done through awareness programs, workshops, and incentives for employers who comply with the act’s provisions.
  • Encouraging employers to provide maternity leave, nursing breaks, and other benefits voluntarily can be a step towards improving the conditions for women in the unorganized sector. Mobile clinics and healthcare facilities, flexible work arrangements, social security measures, and enforcement and monitoring are all essential to ensure compliance with the Maternity Benefit Act in the unorganized sector. 
  • It is essential to recognize that improving the benefits for women in the unorganized sector requires a multi-faceted approach involving government, employers, civil society organizations, and other


Rajagopalan, S. (2019). Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State.

About Deepanshu Bhat

Deepanshu is a management graduate turned development professional. He is a passionate about policy analysis, politics, and critically analyzing the developmental issues in India. He is currently a student of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Deepanshu Bhat

Deepanshu is a management graduate turned development professional. He is a passionate about policy analysis, politics, and critically analyzing the developmental issues in India. He is currently a student of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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