7 March 2016

Africa: Women Struggle for Paid Maternity Leave

Photo: Cinnatus Dumbaya/Ebola Deeply
Walking to the ocean in Lungi, Port Loko, Sierra Leone.

Some Rwandan women could soon be entitled to longer maternity leave at the expense of the state. This could set an example elsewhere. In many parts of Africa, genuine maternity leave simply doesn't exist.

Around 830 million working women worldwide are being deprived of adequate maternity leave. The International Labor Organization (ILO) says that 80 percent of these women live in Africa and Asia.

Only four African countries - Mali, Morocco, Benin and Burkina Faso - have ratified ILO Convention No. 183. This guarantees women paid maternity leave and daily breaks at work for child care and breastfeeding. It also protects pregnant women against discrimination and dismissal at the workplace. The convention also guarantees that women will able to return to their jobs once materinity leave is over.

The ILO launched investigations into maternity leave in 52 African countries. Almost half of them permitted maternity leave of 14 weeks. 35 percent granted maternity leave from 12 to 13 weeks.

However, "the employer is obliged to pay for maternity leave in its entirety in 86 percent of those countries," Laura Addati, an ILO expert on labor law, told DW.

In other words, there is no support from the state for expectant mothers in most parts of Africa.

Employers often failed to meet their obligations under maternity leave legislation.

Only 10 percent of women in work continued to receive their salaries - or a fraction of them - while on maternity leave, Addati said.

The legislation also has a serious omission. It only covers the formal sector of the economy.

"Although most of the women work extremely hard, they still lack safeguards from their employer or the state should they get pregnant", says Addati.

She was referring to women in sub-Saharan Africa who work in the informal sector. They make up the majority, working either in agriculture, as street vendors or as domestics. Only 20 percent have jobs in the formal sector.

Rwanda a pioneer?

In February, parliament in Rwanda drew up a new law which would at least help to improve conditions for some women in the formal sector. Rwandan women in state employ would not only receive full pay during the existing six weeks of maternity leave, they would also be entitled to state-funded maternity benefit for six weeks thereafter.

The Rwandan government intends finance this provision by imposing a 0.6 percent levy on the salaries of all state employees. The law needs to be signed by President Paul Kagame before it can enter the statute book.

Faith Mbabazi, a former chairwoman of the Rwandan Women Journalists' Association, is delighted with the new move. "As an expectant mother I am very happy about it! This bill will help us to become better parents and better employees" Mbabazi told DW.

However, she fears it could be difficult to force companies to adopt the new legislation. There will have to be a change in mentality on the Rwandan labor market so that "employers recognize the advantages of not forcing women to return to work after just six weeks," Mbabazi said

Maternity leave and job insecurity

In Kenya, women are legally entitled to four months of maternity leave. However, this law is not enforced properly. Many Kenyan women therefore return to work long before their leave entitlement has expired because they fear they will lose their jobs if they stay away.

This is the experience of Venantio Karanja Mwangi, who runs a private employment agency in Nairobi and is familiar with the obstacles facing Kenyan working women.

Women's rights activists fought hard for the entitlement to four months of maternity leave in Kenya, but it has failed to take hold in the private sector because of opposition from employers.

"Women who stay away for so long often lose their jobs," Mwangi said.

Smaller companies in particular are not prepared to give women paid leave because they wish to have children. Mwangi believes that state-funded schemes, such as the one in Rwanda, are more promising than those depending soley on employers' contributions.

The ILO recommends that African governments should reduce the burden on the employers caused maternity leave and also cites the Rwandan model.

The ILO's Laura Addati believes attitudes could be changing,

"Governments in Angola, Mozambique and Ivory Coast are also discussing better welfare provisions for women to which the state, the employers and the rest of the labor force would be expected to contribute," she said.

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