Buuri MP Boniface Kinoti Gatobu’s proposal to raise maternity leave through a law review to six months has generated interesting discussions.
On each side are everyone else against the employers, who through the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE), have opposed the plan.
Jacqueline Mugo, the executive director of the FKE, said businesses cannot afford to give women the time off, and thus the proposed amendments are “counterproductive” and if adopted could damage their careers and deny them job opportunities.
But, really, who would benefit from the elaborate leave plan whose half is optional and will come without pay?
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommends that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months.
Working mothers with babies born premature, those who deliver twins or other multiple-birth children as well as complications would more likely benefit from the proposed doubled maternity leave, which will require an amendment of the Employment Act.
This is largely because unlike other normal deliveries, some of these newborns may require hospitalisation for specialised care which might eat into the whole or part of the mother’s three months maternity leave.
The milk contains all the minerals, fats, vitamins, water, antibodies and proteins a newborn needs to grow.
Exclusive breastfeeding is associated with a natural (though not 100 per cent) method of birth control (98 per cent protection in the first six months after birth).
It reduces risks of breast and ovarian cancer later in life and helps women return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster.
The 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) says 61 per cent of children under six months were exclusively breastfed, which is an improvement from 32 per cent in 2009 and 13 per cent in 2003. Work, however, has been cited as a major obstacle to exclusive breastfeeding as once a mother returns to work it declines.
The extended maternity leave would give more time to the mothers of the nearly 530 Kenyan babies born daily but early, and are, therefore, exposed to dying before fifth birthday without specialised care. A full term pregnancy is 40 weeks while a premature birth occurs before 37 weeks.
The care includes time in the incubator for the babies for artificial warmth because the babies lack the necessary body fat to maintain their temperature even when swaddled with blankets. This may involve weeks or even months in the neonatal ICU.
Dr Waceke Kombe, a paediatrician at Aga Khan University Hospital, praises the proposed legislation, especially for mothers with pre-term babies because of the sometimes required long hospitalisation periods.
She told Business Daily: “Upon discharge, therefore, it leaves the mother with very few days with the baby at home before she goes back to work.”
Naomi Njagua, a mother of two, understands the challenge of a premature baby. Her first baby was delivered at six months weighing 750 grammes and was required to be in an incubator. It took 91 days for her baby to come out of the incubator at a time when her maternity leave had just ended.
“But then the office kept calling and asking that I return to work. I had to ask my employer for my annual leave and combined it with an unpaid leave. Fortunately, I got two months to be with my baby who was now weighing two kilogrammes.” She welcomes the amendment as one that would help women who are not so fortunate.
“There are women who I was with in hospital when our babies were in the incubators whose bosses would not understand. Then stress at work affected their milk production and their tiny babies’ who need this milk the most to survive, could not get enough of any at all.”
Coupled with this is that house girls are not easy to come by as caring for a premature baby is delicate and more demanding. Therefore, an extension, Ms Njagua adds, will allow time to sort out some of these issues.
A 2013 survey by the UK-based charity Twins and Multiple Births Association (Tamba) shows that mothers of premature babies voiced concern that their babies would benefit from a longer maternity leave, as they were developmentally behind their peers, had additional health issues and still required a high level of care.
Several mothers made the case that maternity leave should be “relative to the due date” and “did not take into account our babies ‘corrected age’”.
For mothers who are expecting twins, triplets or more babies at one delivery—which are considered ‘high-risk’—they may also end up with premature babies who might also have complications.
As a result, extra care is needed in the early months means mothers of triplets, for instance, tend to return to work later than mothers of twins and singleton mothers, the association says.
However, there is no extra maternity leave days beyond the three months or benefits as it is handled the same way as you would be expecting one baby but by the time they are finding their feet, the maternity leave ends, Dr Kombe reiterates.
She adds it was ironical that women are asked to breastfeed exclusively for six months but are given only three months.
Dr Kombe further adds that when a mother is at home with the baby, the amount of milk is higher than when you go back to work due to the stress and work load.
In addition, if women have to express milk at their work place, then the hygiene is never guaranteed because they might have to use the toilet. This is not only stressful but not ideal.
James Nyikal, a paediatrician and a former director of medical services said that “toilets and restrooms cannot be the dining areas for our babies.”
However, some work places are addressing this by setting up crèches/rooms — private, hygienic, with a few amenities such as microwaves — to allow mothers to breastfeed while at work.
Ms Mugo has said that while employers were empathetic, it was impractical to follow through the Bill. In addition, last year she said the length of child birth leaves have “increased the cost of doing business by 15 per cent” as the employees earn normal salaries when they are away at the expense of their employers.
In Uganda, female employees are entitled to 60 working days maternity leave and in Tanzania, one ought to have been an employee for at least six months to qualify for the 84-day paid maternity leave.
In South Africa, the employer is not compelled by law to give female employees paid maternity leave but it demands that they are allowed a four-month break.
The Nigerian Labour Act does not recognise paternity leave but it demands that female employees are given at least 22 weeks (three months) maternity leave. In the UK, women employees have the right to take up to one year’s maternity leave; the US does not have a paid-leave law.
In Ireland, maternity leave runs for 26 weeks. At least two weeks have to be taken before the end of the week of your baby’s expected birth and at least four weeks taken after.