IN a recent positive move, the Indian parliament has approved a bill that extends maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks and directs employers to provide nursery facilities to female employees. This landmark step has three purposes: to ensure improved health outcomes for newborn children, to enable women to return to work after childbirth and, most importantly, to narrow the gender gap in the labour market.
Globally, women’s employment is supported through different policies and systems that help to not only ensure smooth childbearing but also a smooth transition back to work. Provisions like paid extended maternity leave, child benefit allowances and childcare support are some popular measures to encourage women to join — and stay in — the workforce.
Article 37 of the Constitution directs the state to ensure maternity benefits to employed women, for which there are four laws addressing the issue. But are our existing laws enough to benefit all employed women, or do we need to take further steps?
According to the West Pakistan Maternity Benefit Ordinance, 1958, every employed woman is entitled to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. However, this fairly old law has major loopholes and has been unsuccessful in reaching all working women. The ordinance does not bring public and private organisations on the same policy page, and the 12 weeks leave benefit is only available to women in certain occupations, particularly those working in the government sector.
Closing the gender gap means taking maternity benefits seriously.
Twelve weeks paid maternity leave is not available to the majority of women in the private sector, where the period is reduced to only 45 days. The concept of paid maternity leave in the informal sector, where the majority of women work, is non-existent because their work is unregistered. Moreover, the ordinance does not take into account the larger benefit to the mother’s and child’s health let alone childcare provisions, which are almost non-existent.
Pakistani society has been going through a transition; women in the cities have entered the public sphere and have greater control over their lives, yet gender roles have not changed as much as expected. Women’s familial duties are still stressed upon regardless of the nature of work they are engaged in. This dual burden of household responsibilities and formal work puts immense pressure on them, particularly after childbirth, because women are considered solely responsible for their children’s care. Such a situation compels women to choose between their jobs and motherhood.
The absence of any concrete and practical policy seriously affects women’s work. Working women must spend a good amount of money to avail such support if it is not available at home. Day-care centres are becoming increasingly popular in the larger metropolises, but women working in smaller cities still depend upon support from their extended families — or by hiring maids, thereby spending a major chunk of their income on childcare and increasing the chances of child abuse occurring.
Paid and extended maternity leave is strongly associated with the health of both mother and child. Mothers who avail such extended leave are more likely to afford healthcare and have their children immunised. Longer leave periods also ensure exclusive breastfeeding, which is essential as it improves babies’ immune systems’ ability to resist various infections. Studies show that full-time working mothers are at risk of ceasing to breastfeed too early if they have shorter maternity leave periods.
The ordinance also does not grant enough paid maternity leave to women, and the absence of childcare support further complicates women’s lives. As a result, we find women missing from various places of work. Therefore, Pakistan’s maternity benefits legislation needs revision. A uniform policy of paid maternity leave that applies to all public and private sectors, and to both formal and informal sectors, should be introduced. In this regard, all organisations should be taken on board and it must be made mandatory to provide childcare support at the workplace.
Amendments to the existing law must be framed while taking the mother’s and child’s health into consideration, and should address the problems faced by mothers and newborn children. Extended paid maternity leave will not only allow women to return to work, but will also enable them to invest in their wellbeing as well as that of their children.
Given Pakistan’s poor standing in the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, we need to follow in our neighbour’s footsteps and ensure women’s inclusion in the workforce by developing a more supportive environment for working women. These gaps will not shrink in the near future unless concrete measures are taken to ensure women’s socio-economic mainstreaming. Closing the gender gap will boost our economy, but this cannot be done without such essential provisions.
The writer has a PhD in women’s studies.
Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2017