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Much ado about maternity leave

Earlier this week on Twittersphere, news broke out about the sudden death of a three-month-old baby at a creche (day care facility). The mother was…

Earlier this week on Twittersphere, news broke out about the sudden death of a three-month-old baby at a creche (day care facility). The mother was said to have dropped a healthy child in the morning only for her to return to pick up a dead baby. And while the actual cause of death is yet to be revealed, the fact that a baby died in a day care is enough to send Nigerians into a frenzied debate on why a baby that young should be in a creche and not being cradled at his mother’s bosom.

The outrage generated sparked debates on maternity leave in various government and private organizations in the country with people demanding for a review of the 16-week approved maternity leave in Nigeria. Nigeria’s current civil service rule allows for four months of maternity leave for new mothers. A month is given to pregnant mothers before birth and three months after birth. Also, nursing mothers are also permitted to close early upon resumption until the baby is six months old. This is similar to what obtains in the UK.  However, for private organisations, paid maternity leave is variable. It may range from twelve weeks given by most banks and large corporate institutions to six weeks with half month salary to none at all. 

In most African countries the duration of paid maternity leave ranges from 50 to 98 days. The percentage of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, providing 14 to 17 weeks of leave has increased from 43 to 51 per cent. A marked improvement.

When compared to other western countries, Nigerians have it good where maternity leave is concerned. Paid maternity leave hardly exists in the United States. There is no federal law that applies equally to every person across the country. Only six states make this benefit mandatory for workers in private industry: California, New York and Washington among others. Employers do so voluntarily to attract and retain a competitive workforce. The key word here being ‘Paid maternity leave’. In the States, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a nationwide law that provides unpaid job protections lasting for up to 12-weeks for men and women who qualify. 

Simply put, your job is protected for up to 12 weeks, but you may or may not be paid depending on where you work.

So, what is all the fuss about paid maternity leave anyway?

Paid maternity leave is necessary for many reasons. Pregnancy and new parents need time to recover after pregnancy and birth, care for and bond with a newborn (including, for most, to establish breastfeeding), adjust to changing family dynamics, and obtain postpartum and well-child care. Moreover, the need for paid leave includes people who are recovering from stillbirth, miscarriage, and other pregnancy complications. 

And because we are scientists, several studies have found that the length of paid leave matters for maternal and infant health. Less than eight weeks of paid leave is linked to a reduction in overall health status and increased depression in the mother. For every additional week of paid leave, a mother takes reduces the likelihood of reporting poor mental well-being by 2 per cent. Longer paid leave significantly increases breastfeeding initiation and duration, which has innumerable benefits for moms and babies, including improving the function of the digestive and immune system of the child, and reduces risk of breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, and obesity for the mother. Additionally, Paid leave greater than 12 weeks increases infant immunization uptake.

Growing up in Lagos, I remember accompanying my mother to Balogun market many times and seeing all those industrious Yoruba women, dressed gaily in their pretty boubous and flamboyant head scarves. Young girls, not older than I was at that age, where running errands for their mothers. Over the years, these girls who were being groomed from an early age, would later blossom into ladies who would in- turn materialise into matriarchs who ran multimillion-naira industries. Imagine these women not being able to take time of when they have babies?

An increasing number of women are rapidly becoming breadwinners in their families. And even when they are not bread winners, a lot of them are making significant financial contributions to the family upkeep. Look around you, even within your family, there will be a household in which the woman is the breadwinner; either through white collar jobs or through business. The vast majority of women workers in the world – equivalent to around 830 million women – do not have adequate maternity protection. And almost 80 per cent of these workers are in Africa and Asia.

Therefore, with these rising numbers of women working, it is near impossible to ignore the issue of childcare and maternity leave as the benefits are felt by both her nuclear and extended family.

Imagine this, a young twenty-five-year-old woman who teaches in a private primary who is being paid N50,000 monthly. The cumulative income between her and her husband who owns a barbing saloon is a little over N100,000. Then she gets pregnant and for the first time is forced to consider the fact that the salary she was complaining about, might stop coming. She finds out that the rule in her school is six weeks of unpaid leave. She negotiates it down to four weeks so that she may deliver and return to work after only a month. The truth? She cannot afford to lose more than a month’s salary. She then has to start scouting for a nanny or some form of unpaid labour in the form of a relative that will take care of her child. Emotionally, the guilt from leaving her baby tortures her; Physically, her body protests as it has not undergone the full six weeks of postpartum period. Her uterus is not fully involuted and she will most likely have breast pain from engorgement due to milk accumulation. I see these women all the time, rushing home to attend to their babies.  It is quite disheartening.

So, what is the way forward?

One of the main ways is to acknowledge the numbers of women who are not being paid full maternity especially those working in NGOs and private intuitions. As a way of encouraging good parenting among its workforce, the Lagos State Government recently took a giant leap by extending the maternity leave of its female employees by three months bringing it to a total of six months, to enable them give the required attention to their new born babies in their first few months of life. The policy is in line with the State’s policy of exclusive breast feeding for the first six months of a baby’s life as it has been established that breast milk contains the right balance of nutrients to help infant grow into a strong and healthy toddler. Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced after the delivery of a baby and the end of pregnancy is recommended by the WHO as the perfect food for the new-born. It is very nutritious and contains substances that fight infection although it is a common practice among some mothers to express this very nutritious milk with the belief that it is dirty due to its colour. Story for another day.

In addition, it would be advantageous if organization could have a creche or daycare where they work. The day-care would be subsidised for staff and the payment taken directly from source. Here, the mothers will be in close proximity to their babies in their work place while also using the creche as a way of generating income. Win-win. 

Like I said, Nigeria’s civil service regulation on Maternity leave is among the best in the world. What remains now is for us to advocate for our sisters who work in NGOs, Private firms and unskilled labour. The sheer number of women working in these sectors cannot be overlooked. 

Nobody should have to choose between having a baby and financial independence.