Maternity benefits are a fundamental and integral part of the identity and dignity of a woman who chooses to bear a child, the Delhi High Court has said while holding that a contractual female employee is also entitled to relief under the Maternity Benefit Act.
Justice Chandra Dhari Singh, in an order released Thursday, said work environment should be conducive enough to facilitate unimpaired decision and ensure that a woman who chooses to have both career and motherhood is not forced to make an “either-or” decision.
The Constitution, the judge said, gives a woman the liberty to carry a child as well as the choice to not carry one, and the importance of maternity leave and benefits is recognised worldwide to secure the health and best interest of the mother and the child.
“Maternity benefits do not merely arise out of statutory right or contractual relationship between an employer and employee but are a fundamental and integral part of the identity and dignity of a woman who chooses to start a family and bear a child,” the court stated in its order.
“To make sure that the women of the society are made to feel safe and secure, she should be able to make decisions in her personal and professional life, without having an implication or bearing of one on the other. The work environment should be conducive enough for a woman to facilitate unimpaired decision making regarding personal and professional life and to ensure that a woman who chooses to have both, a career and motherhood, is not forced to make an ‘either-or’ decision,” it said.
The petitioner, a contractual employee of the Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DSLSA), moved the high court after her request for maternity benefit was declined.
The respondent DSLSA argued that the petitioner was not entitled to claim maternity benefits since she was only an empanelled advocate and not an employee to whom such benefits accrue.
In its order, the court observed that the petitioner was seeking “nothing extraordinary or outrageous”, and to stand in the way of exercise of maternity right by a woman, without procedure or intervention of law, was in violation of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution and the basic tenets of social justice.
The court observed that if a woman is made to choose between her familial life and career progression even in “this day and age”, the society would be failing by not providing her the means to thrive.
“The liberty to carry a child is a fundamental right that the Constitution of the Country grants its citizens under Article 21. Further, the choice not to carry a child is an extension of this fundamental right,” the court said.
In the present case, the court said, the respondent should have extended the benefits and reliefs under the Maternity Benefit Act to the petitioner, holding that the nature of employment cannot decide whether a woman employee would be entitled to maternity benefits under the law.
“The nature certainly does not discriminate on the basis of the nature of employment of a woman when it blesses her with a child. The miracle of childbirth and the process a woman goes through during such time must not be hampered by any extraneous events that may affect the health and well-being of the mother and cause her any degree of distress,” the court said.
“The social welfare legislation of the Maternity Benefit Act certainly does not discriminate on the basis of the nature of employment of the beneficiaries. It is also certain that the mere creation of the welfare legislation is not enough. A duty is cast upon the State and all those who are subjects of the Act to uphold the integrity, the objective and the provisions of the legislation in its letter and spirit,” it said.