How it took a HC rap for Kerala WCD to ‘learn’ empowerment lessons

"Only a woman knows how acutely difficult it is to balance between motherhood and her career.  Life as a new mother is like being on a roller-coaster and being a working mother is tougher…," said the Kerala High Court judge

Ironically, the Women and Child Development department's Facebook page teems with feminist slogans, posters and videos that uphold women's rights

The Kerala’s Women and Child Development department, involved in empowerment of women, had to be ironically taught a lesson on the challenges and difficulties faced by a new mother struggling to balance motherhood and her career.

This empathetic lesson was imparted in the form of observations made in a historic judgement given by Justice Devan Ramachandran of the Kerala High Court.

The case in question involved 28-year-old Vandana Sreemedha, a child counsellor in the state’s department of Women and Child Development (WCD). Though, Sreemedha, a contract employee had applied for maternity leave, it was not approved by the director of WCD. And, when she went on leave on November 26, 2020 to deliver her baby the next day, she was terminated from her job for her ‘unauthorised absence’.

Sreemedha moved the high court, and Justice Devan Ramachandran, who was unwilling to countenance such an “attitude” in this century, upheld her right to continue in service and ordered that she must be reinstated in her job. Not before waxing eloquent on the tough challenges working women face as a new mother.

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“Only a woman knows how acutely difficult it is to balance between motherhood and her career. Life as a new mother is like being on a roller-coaster and being a working mother is tougher… The mother’s constant proximity to the child is scientifically proven to be absolutely unexpendable and this, primarily and inter alia, is why the provisions for maternity leave are now internationally accepted,” observed the judge.

The prologue of the judgment delivered by a division bench of the Kerala high court clearly emphasised the struggles of a working woman who is also a mother with a lot of empathy and understanding.

Though the WCD department in Kerala is popular on social media for their posters and campaigns raising rousing slogans on woman’s rights, they failed to provide the basic rights of a feeding mom to their own female employee.

Sreemedha, a masters of psychology student from Fatima Matha College, Kollam joined the District Child Protection Office, which falls under the WCD, as a counsellor in 2016. It was a contract appointment for a period of one year, which was subsequently extended for one year at a time until 21.08.2020. Two days later, Sreemedha was reappointed on August 23, 2020.

Subsequently, under a new selection process, the department conducted a written examination and interview in which Sreemedha secured the first rank and she was again asked to join the state government office on January 2021.

It is almost impossible for a woman on a temporary contract job to avail leave, even if she’s suffering from pregnancy related ailments. As a child-counsellor, she had to go on field trips to provide psycho-social support to children. Besides, she also had to do video counselling sessions during the lockdown. However, Sreemedha completed all the work assigned to her and worked until two days before her delivery.

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Meanwhile, she had applied for maternity leave from November 25 but she had failed to receive any positive reply from the directorate. After she had aced the exam and interview, Sreemedha was asked to join on January 18, 2021. However, she was not in a position to rejoin at that time since her baby was only 50 days old. Besides, she was advised by the doctor to breastfeed the baby as much as possible since the baby was underweight.

Hence, Vandana applied for the continuation of maternity leave for the period starting January 19, 2021 till March 26, 2021.

Though the district child protection officer, who she directly reported to, had recommended sanctioning her leave, the WCD department director turned it down. Instead of granting maternity leave to a feeding mother, the director terminated her from the service, citing ‘unauthorised absence’. The district child protection officer was asked by the director to appoint the next person on the rank list.

Besides, the director was furious at the district officer for appointing a woman, who had delivered a child just prior to her reappointment. The director has recorded this was a lapse on the part of the district officer, who had shown lack of “proper care” and diligence during the appointment process.

Sreemedha could not afford to be unemployed since she was the sole breadwinner of the family. Her husband, who had been employed as a site engineer in the UAE, had returned to India and like other migrants was stuck in Kerala due to the travel ban.

Aggrieved by this insensitivity and injustice, Sreemedha approached the Kerala high court with a writ petition. The argument fielded by the government pleader on behalf of the WCD department director was that Sreemedha was not eligible for maternity leave under the service rules. A contract employee could not be given leave just one day after she joined the service, he said. Justifying the termination, he had further argued that only a contract employee who had been in service for at least one year or more was entitled to maternity leave.

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The high court division bench found this argument untenable and insensitive. The court observed that she had been working with the department for five years with a break of a day or two in the interim till the contract had to be renewed.

The court observed the act of termination prima facie was insensitive because she had given birth on 28.11.2020 and doctors had advised her to nurse her child – he being only 50 days old on the day she was meant to join office – 18.01.2021.

The director should have evaluated her application for maternity leave and if she was eligible for such leave under the service rules, instead of unmindfully terminating her from the service, the court said.

Referring to the termination and the act of threatening the district officer for appointing a woman who had just delivered as ‘lack of caution’, the high court observed, “This attitude is not one which this Court can countenance in this century, when women essay several roles, take on variegated responsibilities and require to be adept multi-taskers, to survive and find wings to achieve their legitimate ambitions.”

Further, he added, “It is certainly my hortative hope that the endeavours of such industrious women ought to obtain unstinted support and encouragement, but the orders (the termination notice and subsequent orders) impugned in this writ petition can only serve to undermine the confidence and morale of persons like the petitioner, who bravely face the challenges of life every day, with the steely resolve to balance their personal and official life to the best of their capacity”.

WCD’s Facebook page teems with feminist slogans; posters and videos that uphold a woman’s right to her body, and her right to exercise her choice and her freedom.

In fact, WCD music videos on the page ask girls to break stereotypes, the posters encourage girls to come out of toxic relationships, the campaign against gender discrimination in the school text books etc., have all been widely appreciated. But, sadly, the Kerala high court had to intervene to ensure one of WCD’s own women employees gets her due.

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