Sara Khan*, a fourth-year dental resident at Lahore Medical and Dental College (LMDC) recently found out that she is expecting her second child. As exhilarating as it can be for an expectant mother, she is daunted with what lays ahead. Despite having a very supportive family, she feels that the maternity leave policies at her institution are “hostile” towards young and expectant mothers.
“I still have nightmares thinking about what I had to go through when I had my first child,” she says. She did receive a 40-day “unpaid” maternity leave but the more harrowing part was when she resumed her job while she was still in the postpartum phase. Khan chose to breastfeed her child, and despite working at a hospital, she was aghast at the lack of a proper nursing room. She had to resort to a small, dingy bathroom for pumping and on top of that had to walk all the way to the canteen to keep the milk in the fridge, as there was no other proper refrigeration facility available.
Under the existent West Pakistan Maternity Benefit Ordinance (WPMBO) of 1958, “Every employed woman is entitled to a maximum of 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave. She can take this leave six weeks before the delivery and six weeks after the delivery. A woman on maternity leave will be paid at the rate equal to her last paid wages.”
However, following the 18th amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan in April 2010, the WPMBO1958 was repealed as federal law, still to be re-enacted as provincial law; which means all provinces now need to formulate their own maternity laws.
Sahar Bandial, a lawyer based in Lahore explains that there are certain loopholes in the WPMBO of 1958, “that allow numerous institutions to circumvent it. That is because the term “worker” in the law is not properly defined.”
Bandial says a “worker” is loosely defined as a person working in the manufacturing industry. Due to this inherent definition problem, many women working in the dental, legal, educational and many other sectors are conveniently excluded when it comes to maternity benefits under the 1958 law.
Bandial is also one of the lawyers who drafted the Punjab Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act, 2019 which was submitted in the assembly by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) MPA Hina Pervaiz Butt earlier this year. Under the proposed amendment, the term “woman worker” will get a proper definition under which women employed by all institutions, working in any capacity will be recognised under the law. Additionally, the maternity leave is proposed to be extended to 16 weeks from 12 weeks, with an introduction of leave for miscarriage and illness during pregnancy, and a provision for daycare facilities and nursing breaks. The proposed bill has also asked for penalties for the contravention of its provisions. Any employer who violates the law will be punished with a fine of up to Rs 0.5 million, whereas under the existent law there is no provision for law enforcement but only a minor penalty of Rs3000.
Similarly, the Sindh Maternity Benefits Act of 2018 has also increased the duration of the maternity leave to 16 weeks from 12 weeks under the 1958 law and also has a provision that asks for the establishment of daycare facilities with a provision of nursing breaks.
In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Maternity Benefits Act of 2013, all women that are employed are liable for the payment of maternity benefit at the rate of her current wage which is to be paid during the period of six weeks immediately preceding and including the day on which she delivers. However, this entitlement is not extended to employees that have been hired on a contractual basis.
It wasn’t till the Balochistan Awami Party MPA Mahjabeen Shireen countered criticism by her fellow lawmakers for bringing her child to the assembly session, that the Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan Alyani decided to establish a daycare centre on the Balochistan Assembly premises.
Amna Bilal*, a second-year resident at LMDC had a very difficult pregnancy, but she decided to power through and go to her training daily because she knew she would need to take a maternity leave eventually and couldn’t afford too many leaves. When she resumed work after a 40-day break, she was surprised that she didn’t get a paycheck for her time off. Her efforts to fight back bore no fruit. Bilal is like so many women in the country who simply succumb to various societal and institutional pressures, or in some cases eventually give up their careers to take care of their children because work environments aren’t friendly for young mothers.
With the proposed establishment of daycare centres in the Punjab and Sindh amendment bills and a daycare facility being opened in Balochistan Assembly, everything seems right in order for working women. But there is still a question that naturally arises: Why would companies invest so heavily into making women a part of their workforce when it would be much simpler, cheaper and easier to hire a man for the same job?
Bandial alluded to a report compiled by McKinsey and Company in 2018, titled The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in the Asia Pacific. The report claims that “all countries in the Asia Pacific could boost growth by advancing women’s equality.” The report explains that if women are a part of the economy, it can benefit a country immensely in the long-run. The report also states, “advancing women’s equality in the countries of Asia Pacific could add $4.5 trillion to their annual collective Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2025, a 12 percent increase over a business-as-usual GDP trajectory. This additional GDP would be equivalent to adding an economy the combined size of Germany and Austria each year.”
While the report recognises that when it comes to “reproductive health, financial and digital inclusion, and legal protection and political voice; countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan still have a considerable distance to travel”, it claims that with a “combination of economic development, government measures, technological change, market forces, and activism” it is possible to achieve gender parity.
Some multinational and private sector companies in Pakistan are already making strides in this direction. Car-hailing company Uber provides all parents paid time off of up to 18 weeks within the first year of the birth of their child, adoption or placement. Furthermore, Uber Pakistan also provides a daycare facility to its employees. Uber Pakistan’s spokesperson Haider Bilgrami says, “We are keen to make sure that women feel welcomed in the workplace and valued for their contributions.” He adds, “We strive to be the most caregiver inclusive company globally. Our philosophy is that our employees will be better able to contribute if we support their needs and provide them with what they need to thrive, not just at Uber, but in life.”
Jamshed Kazi, United Nations (UN) Women Country Representative of Pakistan explains that according to the Global Gender Gap Report of 2018, Pakistan ranks 148th out of 149 countries. Speaking about the international standards for maternity leave and benefits for women, Kazi explains that, ”International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Maternity Protection Convention (No. 183) provides for 14 weeks of maternity benefit to women. Women who are absent from work on maternity leave shall be entitled to a cash benefit which ensures that they can maintain themselves and their child in proper conditions of health and with a suitable standard of living and which shall be no less than two-thirds of their previous earnings or a comparable amount.”
From a women’s rights viewpoint, Kazi further explains that, “for women, specifically, the right to work requires equal opportunities and treatment as well as the elimination of discrimination on the grounds of marriage or maternity, as defined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).”
While certain steps are being taken in the public and private sector to ensure maternal benefits to women who chose to retain their jobs and have a family life, Pakistan still has a long way to go.
*The sources requested their names not to appear in the article.