DENIS JJUUKO: Six months maternity leave could disenfranchise women

Sometime back, a company in China made international headlines when managers asked female employees to ask them for permission to get pregnant! A manager said that he had six female employees in his department and three were already pregnant at the same time. If the remaining three also got pregnant, his department would be incapacitated, he argued.

China may be far away but stories surface of women in Uganda whose careers may be affected due to pregnancy. A pregnant woman may miss out on employment or even a promotion. There are even allegations that some employers start to find ways to fire young women once they learn of their wedding to avoid paying them during their maternity leave. A wedding to most people presupposes a pregnancy. In Uganda, employed women get a mandatory three month maternity leave.

There have been some arguments that this isn’t enough and therefore should be pushed to six months. A Ministry of Health official argued that breastfeeding or the lack of it was one of the reasons for Uganda’s high infant mortality rate. She argued that breastfeeding had dropped from 66% to 63% and increasing maternity leave could avert infant mortality by 13%.

It is a very interesting argument but the media that reported the official’s presentations didn’t say how many women in Uganda are formally employed that take maternity leave when pregnant. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, three in every five unemployed persons in Uganda are women with 70% in urban areas.

Even if you extended mandatory maternity leave to six months, those who would benefit from it would be few to create any significant impact in reducing infant mortality rates because either the majority of women are unemployed or informally employed.

For the majority of Ugandan women, maternity leave is an alien concept because they are expected to still do certain things even when they have just delivered. At home, they are expected to cook, fetch water and collect firewood while looking after the home. Sometimes, a relative may support but not for three months. We can argue about the role of their husbands during such times or choose to reality.

When you visit markets, gardens and all places where the majority of Ugandan women work, you will see them with their babies because for most people in this country, “if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” For these people, nobody would be granting them paid leave. Maternity leave to the majority of Ugandan women means sleeping hungry. The policy would only work for privileged formally employed women, who are in their minority.

If six months maternity leave is the solution to reducing infant mortality rates, then there should be deliberate efforts to have the majority of Ugandans in formal employment. That would require strategic measures to grow micro enterprises where women work into businesses big enough to afford to pay a worker for six months while on maternity leave.

In rural areas, something would have to be done as well such as ensuring availability of piped water in homes, reliable and affordable electricity or gas for cooking to enable women concentrate on their babies than walking miles to fetch water or collect firewood. It would also mean having workers to help them grow food as they look after their babies. And of course male involvement.

Many women especially in rural areas lose their babies because they couldn’t afford transport to go to the nearby healthy facility either for antenatal care or child immunization. In hospitals, babies die because of lack of medicine or health workers.

Teenage girls are giving birth to babies they can’t look after and these are issues that are more urgent than increasing maternity leave.

In formal organizations, human resources managers always worry whether a woman on maternity leave won’t return to office pregnant as such cases are common. Given the high fertility rate of Ugandan women, this is a scenario organizations grapple with. In two years, you find somebody has been on maternity leave twice.

But for the majority of women in formal jobs, six months leave in a country like Uganda would disenfranchise them from assuming top positions. Also, having babies limits women’s networking opportunities. After work, as men go to the golf club or to some social gathering where opportunities could be presented, women rush home to be with their babies. And babies usually fall sick, so they take out more days to be with them. When they are not sick, they are helping kids with homework and such other things. Men can do these roles too but it will take time for the majority to do so. And Uganda is still a polygamous country, while pretending not to be one, something that limits male involvement in every child’s life.

Instead of pushing for the extension of maternity leave for six months, we should be thinking of how to make sure the current law is implemented by all organisations. Providing facilities at workplaces where mothers could come in with their babies or even a simple area where a woman can extract breastmilk and store it in a fridge during working hours could make a difference.

The writer is a communication and visibility consultant. [email protected]

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