February,15,2016: The High Court of Punjab & Haryana has held that women cannot be permanently barred from joining the Army Medical Corps for reason of pregnancy.
In a landmark 36-page judgment, the court has examined the issue in great detail, discussing threadbare the Constitution, decisions, precedents and conventions of many democracies, and has come to the conclusion that forcing a choice between bearing a child and taking up employment interferes both with a woman’s reproductive rights as well as her right to employment, and that such an action has “no place in modern India”.
A woman selected for commission as a doctor in the Army Medical Corps (AMC), was not allowed to join duty on the grounds that she had conceived during the prolonged period between her selection and issuance of appointment letter, and had disclosed the same at the time of reporting for duty.
It was not that she was asked to report at a later date after delivery; she was barred altogether from joining service, and was asked to undergo the entire selection process again in case she wished to join the AMC.
That the refusal to allow her to join duty was incongruous, since unlike other branches of the military, the AMC allows married women until the age of 45 to join, and there is no bar on pregnancy.
Also, in the AMC, there is no fixed batch for reporting for any training in a military academy — selected candidates are merely supposed to join a military hospital closest to their residence for duty, and are supposed to simply undergo a basic eight-week course subsequently, much after joining service.
Of course, the petitioner herself stated that the situation would have been different in the case of those services to which only unmarried women could apply, and there was applicability of military training in a training academy on a fixed date along with a specific batch.
Her situation was all the more odd because there would apparently have been no problem had she not disclosed her pregnancy on the reporting date, or had conceived the day after joining, or had given birth before the joining date.
She argued that a woman’s right to have a child could not be fettered by the chance-based or fortuitous length of the selection process, more so since married women till the age of 45 were eligible to join.
The Directorate General, Armed Forces Medical Services, argued that they could not allow a woman to join if she was carrying a child on the date of joining duty — and she would have to undergo the entire process from scratch after she had given birth.
In its broadest sense, the judgment holds that systems have to move with the times, and that rights cannot be denied. The court has held that in such cases, vacancies can easily be kept reserved until a date after childbirth. While establishments such as the Central Armed Police Forces are already flexible with their women employees, the defence establishment is sometimes seen to be resistant to progressive change.
Even in forces like the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, uniformed combatant women doctors are allowed to flexibly join service after the birth of a child.
The guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs, applicable since 1959, too provide that women should be considered fit for reporting for duty even during pregnancy for all services which do not involve physical training; while in cases of services with physical training, the vacancy should be kept reserved along with protection of seniority — and that such women should be able to join service six weeks after confinement.
With the government clearing 33 per cent reservation for women in the Central Armed Police Forces, and encouraging more women to join, it is being hoped that a similar spirit would be embraced by the defence services as well.
Read Full Text of Judgment-