NEW DELHI -- India is considering extending maternity leave to 24 weeks from 12 weeks, a government official said on Friday, adding that it would encourage more women to breastfeed and help reduce high rates of child malnutrition in the country.
"We feel the current three months is not enough time for women to adequately care for their newborns," said an official from the ministry of women and child development.
"The proposal, if approved, would give working women in all sectors -- public, private and even the informal sector such as domestic workers -- some kind of protection."
According to the ministry, an expectant mother needs one month of rest before birth, and seven months after, to adequately nurse her child, said the official, who declined to be named.
India has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the world. Forty-six percent of children under five are underweight and 48 percent are stunted, according to the latest government figures from 2005/6.
Child malnutrition is an underlying cause of death for 3 million children around the world every year - nearly half of all child deaths - with most dying from preventable illnesses due to weak immune systems, says the United Nations Children's Fund.
Those who survive, grow up without enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals, causing their brains and bodies to be stunted which means they cannot fulfill their physical, academic or economic potential.
The World Health Organization (WHO) - which recommends exclusive breastfeeding for babies up to six months old - says breastfeeding reduces child mortality and has proven health benefits that extend into adulthood.
Yet only 47 percent of Indian mothers exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, compared with 70 percent in neighbouring Nepal and 76 percent in Sri Lanka.
Gender experts say extending maternity leave will also encourage more women to return to work and close the gender gap in the labour market. Many women reluctantly drop out of work because they need more time for their newborns, they say.
At around 33 percent, female participation in the workforce in India is well below the global average of 50 percent, a March report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said.
During to a visit to India in March, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said the gender disparity in the labour sector was a "huge missed opportunity".