It was February 2017. My maternity leave was ending in a few days and I came to know that my childcare arrangement would not come through. Although the sun was shining brightly outside, I felt I was standing in a dark valley, all alone. I was feeling sad, dejected and broken.
I watched my baby sleeping peacefully in front of me. Tears welled up in my eyes and I wiped away the dreams I had been weaving for myself. Clueless as to what to do next, I informed my department head that I would not be able to return to work were I not welcomed along with my baby.
To my surprise, he gave me the green light to bring my baby in and, by doing so, saved me from sinking down a deep hole.
That day had a profound impact on me. It taught me how one person can make a difference, how men can be considerate and supportive of women and how organisations can empower women and retain employees if they want.
Despite being at my wit’s end, that day, I did not have to quit my job. For the next four long years, I worked full-time, taking my child to the office with me.
With the birth of my second child, my responsibilities multiplied and the help available at my disposal appeared insufficient to balance my care load. This time, I saw no option but to quit.
Leaving a professional career to raise a family is among the toughest decisions for women to make. But attempting to get back to their careers can be infinitely harder for mothers
I knew motherhood would not be easy. I knew it would bring responsibilities and throw a lot of challenges my way. But, I did not know I would be left alone in this struggle.
While I felt alone on this journey, thousands of working women in Pakistan find themselves in a similar position, battling isolation after childbirth and workplace policies that seem to be working against them. One such woman is Zile Huma, who left her job of seven years to become the primary caregiver to her daughter.
Zile Huma worked as an embedded systems engineer before circumstances forced her to stay at home to look after her premature baby, who underwent multiple surgeries. Zile Huma herself suffered severe complications after her caesarean section, but her husband’s 15-day paternity leave was not enough time for her to heal herself and look after her new-born daughter.
“The lack of paternity and family care leave also prevents men from sharing childcare responsibilities,” she says.
“Sufficient and paid parental and family care leave lessens the load of mothers and encourages them to keep working,” she tells Eos. Sadly, this is not only rare in Pakistan, it is also stigmatised by society. “Men are mocked for taking paternity and care leave,” says Zile Huma. “Until organisations change their culture, women will continue to pay its price in the form of their careers.”
There is a popular African proverb I keep thinking about. It goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There is a reason why the saying is so well-known. Raising a human being is not a piece of cake. As rewarding as it is, it is a physically, emotionally and intellectually draining process. Hence, mothers need help in coping with the challenges of motherhood.
While Pakistani society persists in a typical South Asian culture that emphasises close-knit families, communities and neighbourhoods, the African maxim holds no real value in our social set-up. Women in Pakistan will receive a thousand unsolicited tips on childbirth, but many get little support in raising children.
A policy brief of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) recommends an overhaul of workplaces. It urges them to adopt family-friendly policies and enforce a family-friendly culture in organisations.
Juggling a career and a new-born is a challenge anywhere in the world. But in countries such as ours, with limited pro-women policies in the workplace, mothers are left on their own, feeling overwhelmed, stressed, overworked and inadequate. Regrettably, the environment at home is not conducive for many working mothers either.
Many women feel they have only one choice, putting their career on hold.
But sacrificing a career comes at a price too. Losing financial independence and a sense of self that comes from having a profession can cost a woman her sanity, emotional well-being, creativity, social life, freedom and even the right to have a say in crucial domestic matters. When women stop contributing financially to their household expenses, they also lose their right to make decisions or give advice on big or small matters.
Sexism is deeply embedded in our customs and institutions. The male-dominated status quo still persists in our society, absolving many men from sharing an equal load of household chores and child responsibilities. The joint-family system further aggravates the situation, where elders define gender roles and discourage men from participating in household chores.
Many male partners throw the entire burden of child-rearing on their female partners and get away with it. They take away their financial independence and force them into unpaid care work, only to find fault in it. This disproportionate burden of childcare and household chores affects women’s participation in the paid economy and leads to a ‘maternal brain drain’.
An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report on the care economy in Asia and the Pacific highlights the disparity in care responsibilities between men and women. It states that Asian women perform four times more unpaid care work than men, and acknowledges the fact that this unpaid care work prevents women from joining and progressing in the labour force.
Equal distribution of care responsibilities can help women with children create a work-life balance and stay employed. Provisions such as paid extended maternity leave, child benefit allowances and childcare support are some popular measures that encourage women to join — and stay in — the workforce.
A policy brief of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) recommends an overhaul of workplaces. It urges them to adopt family-friendly policies and enforce a family-friendly culture in organisations. Family-friendly policies are defined as policies that help parents keep a balance in their work and family life.
The report also recommends sufficient paid leaves to all parents, including paid maternity, paternity and parental leave, plus leave to care for sick, young children. It also emphasises the fact that mutual investment by families, businesses and the state is important, as it lays the foundation for a successful life for children.
Not many organisations in Pakistan welcome women wholeheartedly once they become mothers. Very few of them provide generous maternity leave, day-care centres, flexible working hours, work-from-home arrangements or transportation facilities. Those who do accommodate mothers are exceptions to the rule. Usually, workplaces just want women to go into hibernation after giving birth, it seems, only to return when their babies are grown up.
Mahrukh Arsalan faced similar challenges in searching for a job after a career break of more than two years. Like Zile Huma, she left her position as the head of digital marketing of a leading FMCG company to care for her premature baby. The organisation, where she had worked for four years, did not offer a day-care facility. So, when Mahrukh requested for one, she was bluntly asked to choose between her career and her baby — that too by a senior female colleague.
Sadly, neither the state nor the work culture facilitates female professionals who invest so much time and energy in their careers, and contribute to the economy. In the absence of a support system, women look to their families for assistance. But when families turn them down, many women succumb to the pressure of childcare responsibilities, and leave the workforce, never to return.
The ordeal of this discrimination, prejudice and bias varies among women. Some are mistreated more brutally by organisations than others. Aneela Asad Hosaini was offered a much lower position when she returned to work after her maternity leave. Holding a degree in mechanical engineering, she worked as a project manager and had invested seven years in her organisation.
Although she was aware that her organisation was trying to push her out since the day they came to know about her pregnancy, she was not prepared for the treatment meted out to her.
Last year, the Senate passed the Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill, 2020. The National Assembly, after initial resistance, also approved the bill, which allows six months’ maternity leave and also a one month paternity leave for fathers on the birth of a couple’s first child.
“The day I rejoined, I came to know that my position had been assigned to a junior male colleague, as my bosses no longer considered me ‘fit’ for a field job,” Aneela says. “I was offered a lower, office-based or, to be precise, a ‘clerical position’, which I refused right away.” It was a heart-breaking moment for her, she says.
Culture of bias
Walking away from a thriving career has more impact than what you would believe. The transition of a working woman to a stay-at-home mother is one of the most critical, yet least acknowledged, phases of a woman’s life. Many-a-time, it can be catastrophic for her mental health. A woman loses her self-esteem and confidence along the way. She considers herself to be a failure for not living up to her own expectations and achieving her goals.
To the outside world, Rushna Sarmad is a happy and contented woman. But every night when she lays down in bed, she cries silently to herself, overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and unproductiveness. “This constant guilt has kept my wounds fresh, even after four years [of leaving her job],” says Rushna.
Rushna struggled with clinical depression when she resigned from her position as a credit analyst at a reputable bank in Karachi. Her maternity leave had been exhausted in the initial months of her high-risk pregnancy and she was left with no option but to leave her career of five years.
“I was not ready to let go of my career for which I had studied and worked so hard,” she says. “It took a toll on my mental health. I used to feel suicidal. My family was so worried about me that they would not leave me alone with my child.”
Under the ILO convention, it is unlawful for an employer to fire a woman during her pregnancy or while she is on maternity leave, except on grounds unrelated to pregnancy or childbirth.
Moreover, on resumption of duty after maternity leave, the employer is obligated to provide her one or more daily breaks or a daily reduction of work hours to breastfeed her child. These are to be counted as working hours and paid accordingly.
The commercial banking sector is exploitative in nature, Rushna says. It works at a fast pace and has long duty hours. Very few women, and even fewer mothers, manage to survive, let alone thrive, in such a suffocating environment.
“The commercial banking set-up is designed to discourage female participation,” Rushna says. In her experience, these banks never encourage women to work after marriage or after having babies. Once an employee embraces motherhood, the organisation tries to get rid of her as soon as possible, she claims. This is evident from the fact that there are no day-care facilities in most banks, no flexible timings and no designated off-time that would encourage female participation.
Why does this apparently harmless decision cause such a turbulent impact on women like Rushna, you may ask.
It is because many women face oppression, bias and inequality in one form or the other since their childhood. They have been told, both verbally and non-verbally, that they are weak, less intelligent and less productive than men. Being at the receiving end of such prejudice intensifies their desire to be independent and empowered. They want to prove that they are worth existing — that their worth lies not only in producing babies, but in making a difference in the world. Women study hard, defy the odds and excel in their professional lives.
But when they are about to conquer the sky, they are robbed off their wings and caged inside four walls, where they are allowed to do anything but utilise their potential.
Another ILO report presents a grim picture of Pakistan’s female labour force participation. It states that the female labour force participation rate in Pakistan is 21.9 percent, one of the lowest in South Asia. Only 25 percent of women holding a university degree are working outside their homes in the country, the report also reveals. This meagre female labour force participation signifies a major loss of potential productivity, besides having repercussions on women’s empowerment, independence and quality of life.
The Global Gender Gap Report 2021 published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) placed Pakistan at 153 out of 156 countries on the gender parity index, and seventh among eight South Asian countries.
The Planning Commission’s Pakistan Vision 2025 sets an ambitious target of reducing the gender gap in the country, and increasing the female workforce participation rate from 24 percent to 45 percent. While the female workforce participation is improving across the country, the challenges for working mothers remain largely unaddressed.
Policy of equality
Last year, the Senate passed the Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill, 2020. The National Assembly, after initial resistance, also approved the bill, which allows six months’ maternity leave and also a one month paternity leave for fathers on the birth of a couple’s first child. On the birth of the second child, the mother will get a four-month leave and the father a one-month leave. The bill also allows that the father will be eligible for paternity leave on the birth of the first three children.
While Article 37(e) of the Constitution of Pakistan directs the state to ensure maternity benefits to employed women, it does not stipulate a time period for maternity leave. Therefore, revisions and new policies for maternity and paternity leaves were the need of the hour. While this is a step in the right direction, both state and society need to do a lot more to stop the ‘maternal brain drain’ and acknowledge the economic contributions of women.
The lack of affordable and quality childcare has a massive impact on mothers’ employment. Mothers are more likely to leave their careers and less likely to return to the workforce when childcare is missing, unreliable or expensive. If the government is genuinely looking to increase women’s workforce participation to 45 percent, it needs to facilitate both parents, by not only offering generous parental leave, but also job security and benefits during leave, affordable and quality childcare, and support for breastfeeding mothers.
The state must boost the childcare industry and establish subsidised day-care centres across the country, especially in business centres, commercial and industrial areas. Moreover, there is a need to set up early learning or vocational centres for children, where they can learn a skill or art after school. This will not only ease the worries of parents about leaving their children alone after school, but will also foster an entrepreneurial and creative spirit among children.
Investments in such programmes will help nurture and raise future leaders of the nation and secure long-term economic competitiveness. The government must also encourage full-day schools that are operational till 5pm or 6pm, in order to help parents with their childcare problems.
Zile Huma, Aneela, and Rushna are among the thousands of women who have given up on their dreams and forgotten their goals. They do not see themselves working as full-fledged professionals ever again. Both public and private organisations must do more and should not only establish day-care centres and adopt family-friendly policies, but also conduct return-to-work programmes to boost women’s confidence and knowledge and provide valuable mentorship and skills.
There is a dire need to redistribute women’s unpaid care work, and abolish patriarchal norms, unreasonable expectations and gender roles from society.
The writer is a journalist. She tweets @Tanzeel09
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 21st, 2021