Maternity protection

The best Mother’s Day gift of all

As many countries mark Mother’s Day on May 11, the ILO is poised to release its report on maternity protection, covering adequate leave, safety rules, discrimination protection and proper nursing breaks.

Audio | 09 May 2014
Breakfast in bed, a bouquet of roses or a kid’s drawing in bright crayon colours are all welcome tokens of gratitude on Mother’s Day. But for many women around the world, maternity protection at work would be the best Mother’s Day gift of all.

Marie Holmes, a high-school teacher in New York, had to take unpaid leave following the birth of her second child because she used up all her allocated sick leave and vacation days for her first child.

"I do have maternity benefits through the Board of Education, the problem is that they are unpaid. But many women don't even have that, and have to make the choice to leave their careers if they want to take time off and be with their children and that's an unfair position to put women in."

An upcoming report from the International Labour Organization says most countries have adopted some maternity provisions at work, yet there is still much progress to be made.

The report compares laws with the most recent ILO standards and finds that lack of protection is a big challenge.

Laura Addati is the report’s co-author and Maternity Protection and Work-family Specialist from the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch:

“Countries around the world have adopted laws and policies to promote maternity protection and work-family policies. Even when countries provide those protections, women are forced to go back to work even before they’re ready.”

Holmes is a case in point. She did not feel her maternity leave of 12 weeks was adequate but felt she had no choice but to return to work so that she could keep her health insurance:

"I don't think it serves anybody to send women who are stressed out, and really short on sleep and up every three hours at night nursing back to work before they’re ready. That has to affect productivity. I know in my case, that affected … I was late because of childcare issues. I was late to work because I had to drop my son off at day care more times than I would have liked and I had to take more days off than I would have liked because when he first started day care he got sick."

In developing and developed economies alike, maternity protection is a fundamental right enshrined in key universal human rights treaties. And maternity protection is at the heart of gender equality.

“Gender equality benefits everyone in society. And in order to have gender equality, you must have maternity protection. For instance, in the areas of leave, safety regulations, protection against discrimination and proper nursing breaks. It’s also very important to provide paternity benefits, childcare and other work-family policies.”

Holmes agrees.

“I think it’s essential for women to have access to maternity benefits so they don’t have to make a choice between having a family and having a career. Also because most of us rely on our jobs to provide for our families and we need to keep those jobs.”

The ILO urges governments to implement policies which guarantee maternity protections so that all can benefit, including mothers like Marie, as well as society as a whole.