Women push for longer maternity leave

By Norah Mutesi

“Giving birth is not a cup of tea; it’s neither a stroll in the park. Maternity leave should be increased to six months..."

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KAMPALA - When Jacqueline Ainebyona (not real name), a secondary school teacher returned from maternity leave, she was told she had no job. Ainebyona had taken a two-month leave of absence to care for her premature.

Yet, she is not alone, as Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate Labour Day, there are several other women who are forced to choose between motherhood and keeping their jobs.

Workers’ MP  Margaret Rwabashaija says she has been told of women whose employment contracts are terminated for overstaying their maternity leave but says none has approached her to complain about it.

Rwabashaija says employers who replace mothers who are on maternity leave are liable to labour law-related offences.

“We have heard people say that some women are given three weeks leave, which is contrary to the law,” says Rwabashaija.

During the Fourth Annual Women’s Forum in Kampala last year, Justice Catherine Bamugemereire proposed that the days given to women who go on maternity leave should be increased from 90 days to six months to give mothers enough time to care for their babies.

“Giving birth is not a cup of tea; it’s neither a stroll in the park. Maternity leave should be increased to six months so that by the time the woman is going back to work, the baby is able to sit,” Bamugemereire said.

The judge said both paternity and maternity leave are statutory rights under the Employment Act. However, private employers are reluctant to employ women because of the mandatory maternity leave which makes them feel like they are paying salaries to employees who are not working.

She added that some private employers literally warn their female employers that they risk losing their jobs if they give birth more than an ounce in a given period out of an aversion to maternity leave.

Originally, maternity leave was 45 days, but according to the current Uganda Labour law, it was revised to 60 working days while the International Labor Organization Convention prescribes 90 consecutive days.

Ruth Ssekindi, the director monitoring and inspections at Uganda Human Rights Commission said the three-month maternity leave given to new mothers is enough, and extending their leave to more than three months would push the country’s economy backward.

“I think many mothers would be happy if they were given one year of maternity leave and still be paid, but the levels of unemployment are still high, which means you would be sacked and someone else who needs the job gets hired,” she says.

Ainebyona says six months instead of the current 60 days would be the ideal duration for maternity leave.  Constance Biira, another secondary school teacher agrees.

Meanwhile, Ritah Aciro the Executive Director of Uganda Women’s Net Work (UWONET) says what they can lobby for as women activists is a mother going for leave for three months as it is by law including the weekends, but after that instead of them coming to work at 8:00 am they at least come in at 9:00 am and leave at 3:00 pm instead of 5:00 pm as the norm is so that they are given enough time to bond with their children.

“I don’t think it is right to give women six months of leave, considering that our economy is not yet at a take-off stage and we have high levels of unemployment. It means if you take six months’ leave, by the time you come back someone else who needs your job will take it because that vacancy is there,” she says.

Sylvia Nanyonga Human Resource Officer at OSTEC Business solutions Kampala says, suggesting six months is counterproductive to both employees and organization.

“When you have six female employees in, say, senior management positions and all of them get pregnant and they have to stay away from work for six months, it means the whole department will suffer,” she said. 

She proposes that employers can improve productivity by establishing breastfeeding corridors for new mothers at their places of work.

In Rwanda, women have been pushing for 90 days of maternity leave, including the days before delivery, but the current law grants leave of 12 consecutive weeks, including at least two weeks before delivery.

In 2007, Kenya introduced the Employment Act, which extended working mothers’ maternity leave from two months to three months on top of one-month annual leave that all workers are entitled to.