Maternity Leave: Necessity or Luxury?
Pratiti Shirin writes for DOT :
Almost all countries of the world recognise that a new mother goes through major life changes a few weeks before and a prolonged period of time after the birth of a child. Therefore, there is a provision of taking maternity leave, depending on years/months/hours of service provided. But to the layperson, it might seem that maternity leave is really a luxury that companies or corporate organisations cannot afford to give to their employees and indeed, in especially the garment sector in Bangladesh, women usually lose their jobs on becoming pregnant.
In Bangladesh, currently the length of maternity leave is 6 months for government servants before and after pregnancy. In different countries in Europe, maternity leave or parental leave which both parents can take after childbirth ranges from 16 weeks (in France or Netherlands) to a maximum of 3 years (in Germany) and the leave is either paid or unpaid and it also depends on if the total leave taken is shared by both parents in several countries. In Australia and Japan, parents can take leave for up to 1 year; in Sweden it is 18 months; in Canada, 52 weeks maximum while USA does not have a national maternity leave policy. People can take 12 weeks of unpaid leave there. Nordic countries like Sweden have a very liberal maternity leave policy which allows women with several children to stay off work for almost a decade and work for four days a week for six years if they insist.
Where does the maternity leave fit in into the Bangladeshi context? Compared to the rest of the world, 6 months is probably standard time but not sufficient for a new mother. In our deeply engraved patriarchal system, maternity leave is more often than not, perceived as a luxury. This is reflected in the attitude of private employers and owners of garment industries who fire pregnant women or do not leave them an opportunity to return to work after delivery. Other organisations fall somewhat short of granting the entire 6 months period of leave to mothers although it is their right.
While the concept of maternity leave attracts mixed reaction, the concept of a paternity leave is relatively unknown in our country. However, a law was passed in 2015 allowing fathers to take time off from work for 15 days after childbirth although anyone utilizing that leave remains relatively unheard of. One reason could be our society perceives men as taking time off for childcare as eccentric and odd although in Nordic countries especially, fathers become the subject of social ridicule if they for some reason decide not to take their paternity leave which is a rare incidence. Such fathers are stigmatized for not taking their paternity leave whereas in our culture, the opposite happens. So, even if men take such leave, they remain unheard of against the overall social taboo of perceiving childcare by men as effeminate and ‘soft’.
But parenting is a responsibility of both genders and not only the mother. This is more valid in today’s context where joint families have dissolved giving way to nuclear families consisting of maximum four family members if not less. Most countries of the world recognise this right by including paternity leave in their national childcare policy or by allowing both parents to share their leave. Some countries in the west like UK or Switzerland also have a system of giving parental leave which is an additional leave people of both genders can take after maternity/paternity leave finishes in order to accommodate some unforeseen adjustment as parents even after the baby is a bit grown up.
In our context, although we have both a maternity and paternity leave, both are viewed somewhat suspiciously in our cultural context with the latter being virtually unheard of. But it is of utmost importance that a baby gets the nurture of both parents if they are to grow up as healthy individuals. Therefore, media and NGOs can come forward to break the silence and encourage more fathers to take paternity leave while the government should pass a law making maternity leave mandatory for all organisations with provisions for mothers to sue a party if their employer denies them their right. This would then ensure accountability for the corporate and the garment sector which would not be easily able to sack its employees.
The writer is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh.