Maternity leaves for private sector may increase from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, said Union Women and Child Development (WCD) Minister Maneka Gandhi.

By agreeing to the new proposal — increasing paid maternity leave to six and a half months — the Union Ministry of Labour has complied with the recommendations of the International Labour Organisation, which advocates maternity leave of 14 weeks or more while pushing for at least 18 weeks.

"We had written to the Labour Ministry asking that the maternity leave be extended taking into account the six months of breastfeeding that is required post childbirth. The Labour Ministry has agreed to increase it to six and a half months," said Maneka.

WCD Ministry officials also said that they would try to extend maternity leave to 32 weeks, but the Labour Ministry has expressed reservations over it, saying it would be detrimental to women's employability.

"The Labour Ministry has decided on six and a half months (of maternity leave) following meetings with various stakeholders. We, however, feel eight months of maternity leave — for women in government as well as private sectors — is required. We will move a note to the Cabinet Secretariat in this regard. Six months of exclusive breastfeeding is very important to combat malnutrition, diarrhoea and other diseases in infants and to lower infant mortality rate," WCD Ministry sources told The Indian Express.

Amendments to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, will be made by the Labour Ministry to include the freshly approved proposal.

Currently, female employees in the public sector are eligible for six months' maternity leave and two years' childcare leave until the child turns 18, according to the Central Civil Service (Leave) Rules, 1972.

The Seventh Pay Commission had recently recommended the first 365 days be 100% paid, though women should be paid 80% of the salary for the second 365 days.

Maneka Gandhi, however, had requested Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to not follow through on those recommendations as it would be regressive for women.

A Centre for Social Research report also noted the widespread prejudice against pregnant women in the private sector.