The motherhood penalty of female students
Motherhood penalty is a term coined by sociologists to refer to the pay gap and workplace biases towards a pregnant woman. A certain amount of attendance is a prerequisite for appearing in exams in almost all educational institutions in Bangladesh. In the absence of a student maternity leave, the biases stemming from motherhood coupled with the legal vacuum are acting as an impediment to such student's right to education. This cannot be anything short of a penalty.
Nausea, dizziness, morning sickness, and fatigue are some of the very common pregnancy-related complications. Moreover, after the delivery, many new mothers experience postpartum depression, and unexpected sleeping and feeding patterns. Academic pressure coupled with pregnancy-related health complications can be physically and mentally draining for the childbearing students.
Maternity leave is designed to ensure that a pregnant woman can prioritise her health and provide necessary care to the newly born child without the tension and hassle of all other responsibilities. Sections 45-50 of the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 focus on maternity leave policies. The Act instructs employers to allot four months of paid leave to pregnant women, eight weeks prior to delivery and eight weeks post-childbirth. The newly amended Bangladesh Labour Rules, 2022 deals with the special situations of leave for childbirth after the end of the maternity leave in rule 38(a) and leave for miscarriage in rule 38A.
Permanent government servants are entitled to six months of maternity leave with payment under rule 197(1) of Part-1 of the Bangladesh Service Rules. This provision enables female faculty members and staff of public universities to take maternity leave. It remains a matter of curiosity as to why a legal vacuum still exists regarding the maternity leave for pregnant female students. The stories of expectant student mothers or new student mothers are filled with despair, anguish, and plight. Pregnancy amidst study years impairs many female students from attending exams, and consequently, some discontinue education.
It is quite unfair not to extend the same opportunities to female expectant students. Maternity in its very nature is related to the human body. The unborn babies deserve equal and proper treatment regardless of status or category of the workplace. The lack of attention towards pregnant students is an infringement of article 28, also dubbed as the equality clause of the Constitution of Bangladesh.
Article 15(c) enumerates the right to reasonable recreation, rest, and leisure. Clause d of article 15 mentions social security, which provides for undeserved wants arising from disability. Article 28(4) permits the State to make special provisions in favour of women and children. Considering pregnancy as an intelligible differentia distinguishing expecting students from others, they can be reasonably classified to avail maternity leave.
It is pertinent to mention that permitting appearance in exams condoning the attendance of pregnant students is not an eccentric phenomenon. In 2013, Calicut University, became the first Indian University to grant long-term maternity leave for women students. In 2008, the Delhi High Court imposed a fine of Rs. 25,000 on the Principal of the Delhi Institute of Pharmaceutical Science and Research for declining maternity leave to a student and wasting her one year unjustly. His action was declared ultra vires as the Delhi University Ordinance ensured maternity leave for students as a special case. The Court also directed the college to allow the student to appear in the examination. The Delhi High Court ruled in favour of the petitioners and observed that "….to punish a woman for becoming a mother would surely be the mother of all ironies." The Draft UGC Regulations, 2022 inter alia recognises maternity leave to women candidates for up to 240 days, once in the duration of the PhD programme.
Worldwide top-ranking universities like University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, McGill University, University of Salford, and so forth have their own robust policies ensuring that a pregnant student or new mother can resume her education without any academic loss.
In Bangladesh, the minimum legal age for a female to get married is 18. It is unfortunate that right to education of such students is getting violated due to such lacuna in the legislation. Student maternity leave can help remould the entire picture of women education in the country. It will reduce female students' dropout rate and facilitate them to unravel their unexplored talents. Hence, it is argued that student maternity leave should be mandatorily incorporated into educational institutions. No woman should be penalised for embracing motherhood.
The Writer is a Student of LLB (Hons), University of Chittagong.