Monday, October 2, 2023

Women can’t be forced to choose between right to education and right to reproductive autonomy: Delhi High Court

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The High Court of Delhi has directed the Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut to allow the application for maternity leave by a student pursuing the Master of Education (M.Ed.) course in case she fulfilled the minimum attendance criteria, while observing that she could not be forced to choose between the right to education and the right to exercise reproductive autonomy.

The orders were passed by the Single-Judge Bench of Justice Purushaindra Kumar Kaurav on a petition filed by a woman seeking direction to the University Grants Commission (UGC) to frame specific rules and regulations for the grant of maternity leave for post-graduate and under-graduate courses.

The woman, who got enrolled with the C.C.S. University for the two-year M.Ed. regular course in December 2021, moved the High Court after her application for maternity leave was rejected by the concerned Dean and Vice-Chancellor of the University in February 2023.

Relying on a catena of decisions passed by the Apex Court and various High Courts, Justice Kaurav noted that the right of women to avail the benefit of maternity leave in the workplace was an integral aspect of the right to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The High Court noted that the Constitution, as adopted on November 26, 1949, served as a pledge that the citizens of India made to themselves. A pledge to disassociate ourselves from the parochial notions of society that prevented the ushering of equality. 

It said without any form of equivocation, people of the country asserted their right to be treated equally and claim opportunities irrespective of gender, race, religion or caste.

The Single-Judge Bench said the Constitution envisaged an egalitarian society, where citizens could exercise their rights and the society as well as the State would allow the manifestation of their rights. 

The High Court noted that a compromise was then not sought in the Constitutional scheme. The citizens could not be forced to choose between their right to education and their right to exercise reproductive autonomy, it added.

The Single-Judge Bench observed that two roads could be followed in cases of women who bore a child while pursuing higher education – either to follow the bare text of an existing legal provision and be blind to the consequences of the law, or be sensitive to the person and apply the values enshrined in the Constitution to accommodate the law falling short of societal development.

As per the Court, the first path would force a woman to necessarily choose between her right to a higher education and the right of becoming a mother. 

A woman would then have to either re-engage herself in the activity that she was previously pursuing and was halted by her pregnancy or would have to remain content with her having been unable to complete her vocation or education, it added.

The Single-Judge Bench further recognised the need to fulfill the requirement of a specific number of days of attendance and ensure that the standards to be maintained by the educational institution were not compromised. 

After considering the facts of the case and noting that if the woman’s prayer for a leave of 59 days was considered under the theory classes, she would be fulfilling the 80 percent attendance criteria, the High Court set aside the decision of the University’s Dean and Vice-Chancellor, while directing the University to consider her application for leave afresh and to allow her to appear in the examination if she fulfilled the minimum attendance criteria.

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