Twenty-two year old Ansila Aseez is an expectant mother. A fourth-year student at Government Law College, Ernakulam, her right to maternity leave is debatable. It is a hard and fast rule that an expectant mother receive maternity leave without loss of pay in any organisation she works for but the case of a student requiring this leave is a rarely discussed topic.
There are several other students in this college who are attending classes with delivery dates as early as the end of this month and early next month. Their fear of attendance shortage and losing a year keeps them in class despite the nausea and other difficulties associated with pregnancy.
When Ansila approached the University with her request, she says she was not able to meet the Vice-Chancellor and that her representation was not even accepted by the Private Secretary.
“I got married when I was 22 years old. As my parents found a good match for me and mine was a five-year course, we decided not to wait until I graduated. My husband is very supportive of my studies but the situation demands that I take some rest. It is a natural process. Sometimes I give my attendance and run to the general hospital nearby for my regular check up,” says Ansila.
Ansila is in her seventh semester at college and her child is due on February 24. “I could take a month’s leave in March. April and May is vacation time and then in June I hope to come back to classes. But I will not be allowed to write my exam because of attendance shortage. I will lose a year and will have to continue next year along with my juniors which is why I am attending classes for as long as I can so that I can complete the course on time,” she adds.
When Ansila’s request went unnoticed in November 2014, 200 students of Government Law College in Ernakulam sent post cards to the Vice- Chancellor of MG University (the parent university) seeking provisions for a maternity leave for expectant mothers pursuing higher studies.
At present, the University grants this provision only for postgraduate students. On an average, five students lose out a year, every year, as they cannot meet the stipulated 75 per cent mandatory attendance due to their maternity needs.
“Currently, there is no provision to grant maternity leave to students. We have to discuss this in the syndicate and make amendments to the existing regulations. We will consider this during the next syndicate meeting,” says Sheena Shukkur, pro Vice-Chancellor, MG University.
Calicut University in 2013 granted provisions for maternity leave. Although there are opinions that this is because of the region (Malabar) in which the University is located and due to the strong influence of certain influential political parties, the provision exists for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In Malabar region of Kerala, it is a common sight to see girls getting married at an early age. The step was said to be taken to encourage more women to pursue higher education, without marriage and family responsibilities hindering their studies.
Across universities, there is provision for maternity leave for research fellows — MPhil, JRF and PhD but no specific provision is mentioned for students pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Some authorities are not even aware of whether such a provision exists in the university bylaws, as they have never come across a case of this kind.
“The provision for maternity leave is available for research fellows. There is no such provision in the University regulation for students pursuing other courses, but on special request we would consider their application for re-registration. Then again, they would lose out a year and will have to continue studies joining their junior batch,” says J Letha, Vice-Chancellor, Cochin University of Science and Technology.
While there is strong opposition to this provision by those stating that students will miss several classes and so are not eligible to write the examination, the students feel that they can strike a balance and manage well.
“Even if we take rest for two to three months, we will not be sitting idle. We could study from home. In any case, we photocopy notes and have so many study material. Attending classes are an added benefit but missing them should not be a reason to bar us from writing exams. At the end of it all, it is we who have to write the exam. If we haven’t studied well, we will not pass the exam,” says Rima Mansoor, a second-year student and an expectant mother.
Students who pursue the five-year LLB and MBBS courses are the ones who mostly face this difficulty. Although there could be opinions on granting this leave for students doing theory courses, there is little doubt that it is impractical for practical courses like performing arts.
“At present, the University has no such provision but we cannot make a general provision like that because courses like Bharathanatyam, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam are ones that require body movements. Much before delivering the child, the woman has to stop straining her body. She will require a longer leave period when it comes to performing arts, in which case it is best to take an entire year off,” says PN Suresh, Vice-Chancellor, Kerala Kalamandalam.
Although different universities have their own bylaws, they are governed by the general regulations of the University Grants Commission (UGC).
It is a fact that a student loses attendance and is barred from writing an exam if she takes about three months leave. She will also miss several classes. But the Head of the Department, the Vice-Chancellor and concerned authorities can, using their special powers, give the student an exemption from this mandatory attendance requisite and allow her to write the exam,” said MM Ansari, member, UGC.
According to regulations of the Delhi University, “In the case of a married woman student who is granted maternity leave, in calculating the total number of lectures delivered in the College or in the University, as the case may be, for her course of study in each academic year, the number of lectures in each subject delivered during the period of her maternity leave shall not be taken into account”.
Barring all the individual university rules and regulations, Article 42 of Indian Constitution contains the directive that “the State shall make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and maternity benefits”.
“In the absence of a specific law, such a law could be interpreted and the students should be able to avail maternity leave. Nine students approached the Delhi High Court a few years ago and the judgment for all of them has been favourable. Even though maternity leave for undergraduate students is rare, unlike with research fellows, it is a right they are entitled to and guaranteed by the Constitution and the court,” says Ravi Bhardwaj, principal consultant, EduLegal, a legal consultant firm in Delhi. A practising lawyer, Bhardwaj specialises in Education law.
The Delhi High Court in its verdict states, “...if any female candidate is deprived or detained in any of the semesters just on the ground that she could not attend classes being in the advanced stage of pregnancy or due to the delivery of the child, then such an act on the part of any of the university or college would not only be completely in negation of the conscience of the Constitution of India but also of the women rights and gender equality this nation has long been striving for.... Hence, a female student cannot be deprived of her student status or be detained in any semester on account of the fact that she could not attend the classes because of her pregnancy...”.