Several employers in Nepal deny maternity leave. Why is it a cause for concern?

Photo: Hippopx

Recently at my workplace, the management team was informing all the staff of the organisation’s revised policies that also included a leave policy. About maternity leave for women in the team, the policy stated 30 days of paid leave and the remaining 30 days of unpaid leave. As it contradicted the provision of the Labour Act, and as one of the few female staff, I wanted to raise my voice against the provision in the policy.

After rounds of efforts at different levels, the policy got revised. However, that event got me a little distressed to contemplate the gaps between such policies and implementation.

Legal provisions vs implementation

As per the Labour Act, 2017, every private and public organisation is mandated to provide 14 weeks (98 days) of paid maternity leave to mothers, in which the employer pays for the 60 days and the social security fund covers the remaining 38 days. The act also provides 15 days of paternity leave to the fathers.

Although this is not even near to the best in the world (for example, India provides 28 weeks of maternity leave, and China provides a minimum of 98 days to up to 200 days in some provinces), this is an upgrade from the previous Labour Act,1992, in which the maternity leaves were provided for 52 days. The constitution of Nepal has also made women entitled to legal support in case of any denial of rights.

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However, among many private institutions, the right is not secured on the grounds that not everything that the law mandates are possible to implement. The argument has led nearly 70% of organisations, mostly private institutions, to shrug off the provision and deprive women employees of the leave, according to Forum for Women, Law and Development, an organisation that works for women’s rights in Nepal.

Excuses and explanations

The reasons why institutions deny maternity leave are numerous. Experts working on maternity rights share that almost 80 per cent of women working in the informal sector are ignorant about the existence of maternity leave. A lack of proper knowledge and information among working women about updated rights and policies does hamper their full enjoyment of rights. But, is that the major reason why new mothers do not get paid maternity leaves? Is it fair to point a finger at women not being aware enough for not getting the fundamental right?

Most women are unaware of the maternity leave provision in the first place. Some others, although aware, are not empowered enough to take legal action thus abide by the organisation’s instruction or quit their jobs. The fear of losing economic security and going through elongating legal procedures amidst the social pressure to put motherhood first causes a lack of action from women’s side.

Furthermore, blaming women’s silence rather than the organisation’s casual denial of rights is not fair. As with most cases, it often falls upon female staff the responsibility to fight against the authority and ‘demand’ their rights. It is as if they fail to raise their voice, hence they should not expect to get even the basic rights listed out in the constitution. It is unfortunate that in times when so many issues are still not addressed by the laws, women still have to fight for the ones that are legally addressed.

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The major reason behind the organisations failing to implement gender-sensitive policies like maternity leave is a lack of equal participation of women at the policy-making level. Women’s participation in decision-making in private institutions is minimal, if none, and limited to mere tokenism in most places. As per the Nepal Labour Force Survey 2017-18, representation of women in senior positions is alarmingly less with only 13% of women in comparison to 86% of men.

Additionally, the absence of a systematic monitoring mechanism for legal compliances by private companies has led to the organisations getting their way out with policies. The Company Act, 2007, mandates every new company to submit articles of associations and memorandum of associations along with some vital company documents upon registration. However, the policies and employee manuals are not required for registration and so, not reviewed by any governing bodies.

Concerns and consequences

The gravity of consequences of such improvision is often undermined by the men-led institutions. One in four women quit their jobs due to pregnancy across the world. In India, a study suggests that 50% of women quit their jobs after pregnancy, and only 27% return with the majority of them quitting again. The problem is not an exception in Nepal. The case of a teacher of a Kathmandu-based school who had to work till her labour that led to the demise of her baby sheds light on the extreme conditions upon which women are expected to work despite their physical conditions.

Photo: Pixabay

Quitting a job in the middle of a career makes it difficult to transition back to the job market for women. As such, women’s career growth and promotion get halted because of their maternity break. In Nepal, 78% of women of working age are unemployed as per Nepal Labour Force Survey 2017-18. This ultimately leads to a higher poverty rate among women. A collaborative report published by the UN Women and World Bank states that for every 100 men there are 122 women aged between 25-34 living under extreme poverty. Nepali women also earn 30% less than men as per Nepal Labor Force Survey 2017-18.

Research also went further ahead to find out that the risk of death in children under five years is also higher among mothers who do not get paid maternity leave as it becomes challenging for them to afford nutritious food and medicines.

But, the gaps in maternity rights widen with organisations failing to understand the importance and impacts of such provisions on women’s lives and eventually on the economy of the country. The lack of a systematic monitoring system and accountability check of private institutions encourage patriarchal institutions to dismiss women’s rights easily. Ensuring paid maternity and paternity leaves, along with facilitating a smooth transition to the job market post-maternity period and creating a child-friendly work environment, is essential to ensure women’s growth in the labour market.

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Khanal is a gender activist.

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