Women Penalised for Reproductive Role?

by Selamawit Seyoum

As part of the universal effort to address gender inequality and inequity, a number of measures have been taken internationally to bring an end to injustices committed on the fair sex.  The Beijing Platform for Action, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as well as the various declarations and recommendations on the equality, right and empowerment of women adopted at different fora such as the International Labour Conference (1919 &1952) and the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) are but a few instances.

A number of countries which participated in the conferences and signed the conventions have amended their national laws in line with the international instruments and are applying them in  their respective countries.

However, in most of the African countries, where civil wars are draining human and material resources and where political as well as economic reforms are the over-riding agenda, the attention given to gender equality is far short of what is really deserves.

Surely, it is believed that despite the prevailing economic and political turmoil in the continent, governments along with respective societies can possibly work better to ensure the welfare of the vulnerable and subordinate groups - women.

It was with this understanding that a regional event took place in Kenya early last month.  Among others, the workshop discussed gender violence, maternity rights family laws that affect the reproductive health and rights of women and girls.

The four-day workshop held in Karen, Nairobi from August two to five was attended mainly by journalists from East African countries.  This East African Regional Workshop for "journalists of Law, Policy, and Reproductive Health and Rights" was aimed at sensitising media personnel on the importance of policy and legal reforms to the respect of women's reproductive rights.

The rights of women workers were, inter alia, discussed at the workshop organised jointly by the Interlink Rural Information Service (IRIS) in Nairobi and Panos London.

Over the last few years, some parts of the region have witnessed an increase in the number of women joining the formal sector.  Currently of the total labour force in the formal sector of the respective countries, women constitute 13 per cent in Tanzania, 16 per cent in Ethiopia, 19 per cent in Uganda, 22 per cent in Kenya, and 45 per cent in Mauritius.

The basic question, however, is whether the rights of women in the formal sector are protected.  Most of the existing laws in the region are "gender insensitive and discriminatory in terms of (equal) opportunity within the work place, and in general access by women to employment," said Mary Makoffu, Gender and Equality Coordinator of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions African Regional Organisation (ICFTU-AFRO), in a paper she presented to the workshop.

This not only infringes upon the rights of women workers but also discourages potential ones from competing in the labour market.

One good example here is maternity right.  Maternity right for employed women has been recognised since 1919 by the ILO convention.  When the convention was revised in 1952, amendments were also made to women's maternity right protection.  Other relevant supplementary recommendations have also been adopted in recognition of the fact that maternity protection is crucial for the establishment of equal opportunity to women in the labour market.

Nevertheless, most East African Countries have not met the ILO standards.  Their labour laws do not observe even those parts of the convention, which are consonant with African economic context.

The right to maternity leave, for instance, is not yet fully recognised by a number of countries in the region.

In Uganda, the maternity leave provided to a woman is only 45 calendar days and pinned to it is a condition that she has completed probation period.   In Kenya, women are entitled to 60 days of maternity leave.  The laws in both countries fall short of the maternity leave provision of the ILO convention which is a minimum of 12 weeks.

On the other hand, several international declarations urge for child rights protection including their right to be breastfed.  The 1990 Innocent Declaration in Italy which calls for the creation of an environment enabling for all women to practice exclusive breastfeeding from birth to four-six months of age is just one to mention.

The provision of child-care facilities such as special rooms for breast-feeding or crèches for the care of pre-school children situated in work places is a fantasy to most of the African countries.  The provision of a much-extended maternity leave which may be common in European countries is not practical in Africa.

But as the saying "if there is a will there is a way", goes, the countries in the region could improve their maternity protection laws in accordance with the ILO convention.  A collective bargaining agreement between labour unions and the management in some enterprises in Kenya had, for example, improved the labour laws of the country, said Makoffu.  The negotiation includes increasing women's maternity leave without affecting their annual leave and allowing them to enjoy breastfeeding/nursing breaks.

Why does improving maternity protection laws then seem to be a cumbersome task to the governments in the region?  It is because as the participants of the workshop noted, governments do not clearly recognise the fact that maternity is a social function?  If countries like Ethiopia with similar, nay, slimmer economic background and the collective agreements like in Kenya were able to improve the maternity protection law, then it does not look that difficult to the governments to amend their maternity protection law accordingly.  The problem seems thus that women's issue is not yet given the consideration it deserves in this part of the world.

ILO's Maternity Protection Convention No. 103 specifies that all maternity benefits including salary and medical care expenses should be provided "by means of compulsory social insurance or by means of public funds and in no case by the employers," Makoffu said.  However, in a number of countries, this principle does not apply.  She said, "Where paid maternity leave is mandated under the labour code rather than under social security legislation, the benefits have to be paid by the individual employer.  This tends to be a disincentive for employers to recruit women of child-bearing age. This, in turn, has an adverse effect on women's employment rights to and to equality between men and women."  The ILO convention which emphasises the fact that women and men should have equal responsibilities towards their children and other family obligations is another example of the ILO provision which is not ratified by most African countries, according to Makoffu's study.

Women who could break through cultural barriers and economic pifalls that impede their advancement usually find themselves in an insecure environment just because of their reproductive roles.

"…Women's reproductive roles reinforce the perception of employers that women are 'expensive' and less reliable labour due to maternity, child and other family related duties.  their employment and career prospects are, therefore, limited compared to that of men," Makoffa said.

In Ethiopia, for instance, the maternity protection law is relatively much better with a fully paid maternity leave grant of 90 days as incorporated in the Labour Proclamation No 42 (1993).  Many organisations adhere to this proclamation.  Yet, in order to circumvent this declaration, some private employers screen out women of childbearing-age denying them employment.  There are also enterprises that deny women employees the 90-day maternity leave.  They either reduce it to 45 days or would not grant it at all.

(to be continued)