Maternity Leave: African Women Fight Not Alone Anymore - July 2010

Dec 31, 1969 - African women are not alone anymore in their fight for maternity leave. Men begin to push for paternity benefits.

By Tawanda Kanhema

Very early into South African chain store worker Anna Chitsuwi's pregnancy, she was forced to take a polygraph test along with other employees as part of an internal investigation. When her employer found out that she was pregnant and could not take the test due to possible interference from her baby's heartbeat, he accused her of getting pregnant to avoid the polygraph test and all went downhill afterwards.

When the time came for Chitsuwi to seek maternity leave, she found out that her employer would not pay her, and turned to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), which in turn told her that it would pay her because she is a foreigner, although she was working legally in South Africa.  

"Faced by the fact that I was not  going to be paid whilst on my  four months of maternity leave I was forced to stay at work until the baby was almost full term, which was risky," she said, adding "I was also forced to go back to work early since I needed the money. That means I had less time with my child."

Chitsuwi is a Zimbabwean immigrant, but said her South African friends do not have it any better when it comes to maternity protection in the workplace, especially single mothers, some of whom have ended up in despair and resorted to abortion after failing to secure maternity benefits from their employers or the fathers of their babies.  

A combination of low wages, failure by employers to comply with labour regulations stipulating the benefits employees are entitled to and complications in the process of obtaining maternity benefits from government funded programmes has led to many women either losing their jobs after giving birth or risking their health to retain their jobs.  

While significant strides have been made in pushing policy changes to strengthen maternity protection for women, some countries continue to drag their feet.

A recent survey by the International Labour Organization's Conditions of Work and Employment Programme found out that although there had been major improvements in the past 15 years since the last review in 1994, there is a pressing need to strengthen maternity protection.

In an internal review of the ILO's efforts published last week, Manuela Tomei, Director of ILO's Conditions of Work and Employment Programme said despite noticeable improvements in maternity protection laws, as states become more aware of the importance of maternity protection for both gender equality at work and the health of newborn babies and their mothers, problems still exist.

"We found that all 167 countries monitored by the new “ILO Database of Conditions of Work and Employment Laws” have national legislation on Maternity Protection," Tomei said, adding, "63 ILO member States have adopted at least one of the three ILO maternity protection conventions and 30 per cent fully meet the provisions of Convention No.183, the most recent one."

Although high, considering where they were at the last review in 1994, the level of compliance among governments is low by proportion, and this means tough times for women like Chitsuwi, most of whom have little recourse against powerful corporations and are not covered by government funded maternity relief programmes.

Government involvement crucial

The survey found that some ILO member states were moving away from imposing the burden of maternity protection solely on the shoulders of employers as governments become more involved through the provision of funding for working women and the self-employed.

"We noticed a shift away from the systems relying entirely on employer responsibility. By 2009, half of the countries financed benefits solely through their social security systems or public funds in order to relieve employers," said Tomei,

"A share of 17 per cent relied on a mix of payments by employers and social security, while in one-fourth (26 per cent) of the countries payment is still covered entirely by the employer with no public or social security support. These changes are encouraging as they reflect progress towards the kinds of legal provisions called for in ILO Convention No. 183."

Among the major challenges preventing comprehensive maternity protection is the lack of coverage in some countries for domestic workers and women in the agricultural industry.  Only 54 if the 167 ILO member states currently provide maternity coverage for women employed as domestic workers.
Reforms lead to longer maternity periods.

Tomei said the ILO had noticed a shift towards longer leave periods at the time of childbirth among the more progressive member states, with a 10 percent increase in the number of countries that offer maternity leave of at least 14 weeks since the last review in 1994.

"Whilst in 1994, 38 per cent of the countries offered at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, the number rose up to 48 per cent in 2009," Tomei said.

Industrialized economies, mostly in the European Union and countries in the Middle East have recorded the highest increases in the length of maternity leave over the past 15 years.

The ILO's Convention 183 (2000) recommends that expecting women get free medical care, be protected from harmful work during pregnancy or while breastfeeding and be entitled to maternity leave of at least 14 weeks. Under Convention 183, expecting women are entitled to income of at least two thirds of their preceding salary, but most employers and governments are still paying just half.
Men join the queue for paternity benefits

In some countries like Norway and Mongolia, reforms including men seem to have strengthened the case for maternity protection, as men raise their voices in demand for paternity  benefits and other provisions aimed at bridging the gap between family and work often created by the arrival of a new baby.  Maternity protection had traditionally been considered to be a preserve for women in the workplace.  

The the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the largest and most influential trade union in the southern African country, is lobbying for the reform of Zimbabwe's Labour Act to allow men at least 14 days paternity leave so that they can assist their wives and provide other forms of support to their families.

ZCTU says Zimbabwe's current labour laws, which only allow maternity leave to women, are discriminatory and have the effect of disadvantaging women. Among other reforms, the labour body wants government to strike down limitations on the one year duration of employment required before a woman can seek maternity leave, a current 24 month minimum limit on child-spacing and a limit on the number of children a woman can have under one employer.  

The men in Zimbabwe are not alone. A recent survey of maternity protection laws by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows that many countries have sought innovative ways to bridge the gap between work and family life often created by the arrival of a new baby.

"Paternity leave provisions are becoming increasingly common around the world, with at least 49 countries providing paternity or parental leave policies that fathers can use around the birth of their child," Tomei said , adding, "This policy pattern which recognizes the father’s involvement is an important step towards gender equality."

In Norway both parents have access to a time account that allows to take partial parental leave, which comes with the benefit of reduced working hours for a period of up to two year, while in Mongolia, mothers and single fathers are entitled to paid leave until the child is three years old. Parents also have additional breaks for childcare or feeding.

Tomei said nearly one-third of ILO member states have introduced provisions for nursing and childcare facilities in their legislation whilst other countries, such as Chile and France, financially support parents through childcare allowances, vouchers and tax savings for both working parents and employers.

As men join the fight, it remains to be seen how far governments and employers will go in meeting employees and the self-employed half-way on coping with the demands of new arrivals in their families.


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