Nepal has made great progress in reducing its maternal mortality rate in the past two decades. However, the country still lags behind in terms of some maternal health policies and implementation, and maternal mortality remains higher here than every country in South Asia except Afghanistan. Maternity leave policies are one method that governments can adopt to encourage working mothers to seek pre-natal care during pregnancy and take time off before and after child birth, while ensuring that women can later return to their jobs without punishment or demotion. Paid maternity leave is a basic social protection and is essential for the health of mothers and their children, as well as the long-term financial stability of working women.
Maternity protections have been included in international treaties since 1919, when the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted its first Maternity Protection Convention. Other international treaties, such as CEDAW, and additional ILO recommendations have sought to ensure that women can combine their productive (labor) and reproductive (motherhood) roles if they wish, while receiving equal treatment and opportunities in employment. Without maternity leave protections, women workers have to interrupt or reduce their participation in the workforce, which has financial consequences. Unfortunately, a large majority of the 830 million female workers in the world do not have adequate maternity protections. Only 28% of employed women worldwide receive cash benefits for a maternity leave. Besides being a key provision for gender equality and non-discrimination in the workplace, maternity leave also provides major health and economic benefits to women, children, families, and societies. Studies have shown that a longer paid maternity leave is connected to infant health and a reduction in child and maternal mortality, partially because mothers have sufficient time to breastfeed and vaccinate their babies.
Nearly all countries now guarantee at least some paid maternity leave for mothers. However, only half offer benefits that are sufficiently generous or long enough. The most recent version of the Maternity Protection Convention (2000) recommends a minimum paid maternity leave of 14 weeks (98 calendar days, or 3.5 months), though ILO Recommendation No. 191 encourages countries to ensure maternity leave periods of at least 18 weeks (126 days, or 4.5 months). ILO has promulgated three maternity-specific conventions and recommendations; all three state that six weeks (42 days) of maternity leave after childbirth is absolutely compulsory for women workers. Nepal is not one of the 32 countries that has ratified the Maternity Protection Convention, despite being an ILO member state since 1966.
Nepal’s maternity leave policies do not meet international standards. It is one of only 27 countries in the world that guarantees less than 12 weeks of paid maternity leave in the formal workforce. As of now, according to the Civil Service Regulations, government civil servants receive 60 days of paid maternity and 15 days of paid paternity leave. Nepal’s Labour Rules 2050, which govern the formal private sector, allow for 52 days of fully-paid maternity leave before or after the birth of a child. This guaranty of 52 to 60 days is among the lowest in South Asia: other SAARC countries offer paid maternity periods up to 26 weeks, such as in India. Also lacking are employment policies to encourage pregnant women to receive pre-natal healthcare; during pregnancy only 68% of Nepali women receive at least one pre-natal check-up by a skilled health professional. Nepal’s National Women’s Commission (NWC) has advocated to the Public Service Commission, Ministry of General Administration, and Attorney General’s Office that the Civil Service Regulations should increase paid maternity leave to six months, similar to India’s civil service standards. An improved national maternity leave policy, as well as increased awareness of its importance formaternal and infant health, could help ensure that pregnant women receive at least four pre-natal check-ups during pregnancy, take time off from work after giving birth, and have appropriate time and space for breastfeeding breaks once they return to work.
Of course, hundreds of thousands of women workers in Nepal work in the informal sector where labor laws do not reach. From subsistence farming to restaurants, women in the informal sector are not protected by the laws that apply to the formal sector. The ILO estimates that 70% of Nepal’s economically active population works in the informal economy, which lacks oversight. Therefore, any discussion of formal laws and rules, such as the Labour ActorCivil Service Regulations, will realistically apply to only a small portion of working women and men in Nepal.
To better support working mothers, fathers, and their children, the government of Nepal could take the following actions:
• Ratify ILO Convention No. 183, the Maternity Protection Convention,and adopt ILO’s maternity leave recommendations
• In the upcoming revisedLabour Act, increase paid maternity leave to at least 18 weeks (4.5 months) and endorse paid paternity leave of at least 15 days
• Amend the Civil Service Regulations to increase paid maternity leave for government employees to 18 weeks, up from 60 days (8.5 weeks)
• Explore the possibility of establishing a public fund to cover the costs of maternity and paternity leave in the private sector to ease the burden on employers to cover all costs
VSO International Volunteer, Gender, Monitoring & Evaluation Advisor National Women's Commission, Kathmandu, Nepal. She can be reached at Amanda.firstname.lastname@example.org