The Delhi High Court has ruled that a female employee working on a contractual basis is also eligible for benefits under the Maternity Benefit Act.
In a released order on Thursday, Justice Chandra Dhari Singh emphasised the importance of a supportive work environment that enables women to make decisions without hindrance. The justice highlighted the need to create conditions where women can balance both their career and motherhood without being compelled to choose one over the other.
According to the judge, the Constitution grants women the freedom to either bear a child or opt not to, and this underscores the global recognition of maternity leave and benefits. These measures are universally acknowledged as crucial for safeguarding the well-being and best interests of both 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 further stated.
The petitioner, who was employed on a contractual basis with the Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DSLSA), approached the high court when her appeal for maternity benefits was turned down.
The DSLSA, in response, contended that the petitioner, being an empanelled advocate, did not qualify for maternity benefits, as such entitlements are reserved for employees eligible for such provisions.
The court noted in its decision that the petitioner's request was not unreasonable or extreme. Preventing a woman from exercising her maternity rights, without proper legal procedure or intervention, was deemed a violation of both the Constitution's fundamental rights and the fundamental principles of social justice.
The court remarked that if, even in the present day and age, a woman is compelled to pick between her family life and professional advancement, then society would be falling short by not furnishing her with the necessary resources to flourish.
"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 specific instance at hand, the court stated that the respondent ought to have provided the petitioner with the advantages and provisions outlined in the Maternity Benefit Act. The court held that the type of employment should not determine whether a female employee is eligible for maternity benefits as stipulated by 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 further stated.