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I had a discussion with my friends on Facebook yesterday. The discussion was over the news that Rwanda’s Parliament has reduced the minimum period of maternity leave (ML). The general sentiments I gleaned from the comments on the post which broadcast the news ranged from mild disapproval, through shock to extreme anger. Of course, that is understandable – rights may be enlarged (not abridged).

Most of the commenters on the post seemed to hold the view that longer ML is mainly beneficial to the mother involved. Reducing it, therefore, is to her disadvantage; and should not be countenanced. I made a few comments under the post but lost track of the discussion due to the speed at which the comments came raining in (and, probably, even due more the bread-n-butter issues at hand at the time). So, I decided to rather do a blog skirting my views on the matter.

Let me begin by saying that the advantages of ML cannot be overemphasised. And, on the question of who, between the employer and the mother, benefits most from longer maternity leave, I seem to have a slightly different view. Having managed workers for some time now, I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that ML is even more beneficial to the employer than to the mother involved. Trust me, there is no point having “at work” a worker 98% of whose already-tired attention is on her child several miles away back home.

However, we will be either arguing fundamentalism or be a little too naive to base our analysis of the issue of ML duration on the above dimension only. I think the other critical dimension to the issue is the practical challenge that attends the private small-scale investor-entrepreneur employer, whose primary focus is to make returns on her already small capital within the short term in a wobbly economy like ours.

The primary aim of women’s right activists like us is to afford as much dignity and relief as possible for mothers at all times. But, the entrepreneur, particularly those in our highly perilous third world economies characterised with massive unemployment rates, is so much unlike us. He is faced with 2 real economic options: to either (1) employ a male who will work around the clock all year for many years; or (2) employ a female who will take 6 months ML in every 2 years on the average. Starkly faced with this reality, a private employer (even with substantial women’s rights acumen, would not find a difficulty in making a choice – employ a male worker.

So, if Rwanda, which has the most female-dominated Parliament in the world, decides to make a law reducing maternity leave from 13 weeks to 6 weeks (as I understand it), they probably are trying to solve another serious problem – female unemployment.

Workplace crèches and nurseries are often proposed as one of the solutions to the problem. That is cool, because the mother is will focus more on work, knowing that her child is just steps away. But that, too, would hardly be a prudent economic option for our small-scale employer employing 3 to 5 women who may not all be breastfeeding at the same time.

This brings to mind one other point – paternity leave (PL): You see, one of the great but less-cited advantages of PL is that it leaves the employer with no real advantage of employing a man over a woman, all things being equal. Indeed, PL does check gender discrimination in employment situations 🙂

Photo credit: Golda