- In Zimbabwe, as all across Southern Africa, many working women like 23-year old "Sifiso Msimango" face a very difficult life choice - when to take a career break to start a family. Like in many countries, current maternity protections in Zimbabwe are not enough.
Married for three years, Ms Msimango [not her real name] and her husband put off having children because they could not afford it. She worked for a small building society bank in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city. Her husband worked for a small office stationery and furniture company that was not doing well, mostly because of the harsh economic environment in Zimbabwe.
As happens, especially in Southern Africa, the couple found that the family and social pressures to have children are great. Ms Msimango suffered as her in-laws and her aunts continuously hinted the need for them to have a child, even offering traditional assistance.
To explain the economics of the situation was a waste of time. What makes it even worse is that the economic conditions in Zimbabwe make it difficult for a woman to contemplate not earning a salary while she starts a family.
Towards the end of the year, things began looking up. The couple secured better jobs; she with one of the country's few surviving commercial banks. Their immediate priority was to have a baby and make the family happy.
Today, Ms Msimango is six months pregnant, but she worries about her maternity leave. Barely a year at her new job, she will not receive pay during her leave. "I had to make the choice either family or my job, and I tell myself that if we could survive two years of low income, the little we save for the baby and what he earns will suffice. I have been waiting long for this." she says.
This is just one example of the pressures that many Southern African women face. The law undermines the woman's right to childbearing, dictating when and how she can have her children. It ignores the dual role of women in society, as both workers and mothers.
When the 6th Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) met in Harare on 1 June this year, three of their fourteen recommendations referred to maternity issues, outlining the need to mainstream gender in the workplace by promoting maternity protection.
The current Zimbabwean law provides for the right to maternity protection to certain categories of women, which includes 14 weeks leave in the private sector, and 12 weeks leave for those in the public sector, 100 percent job security during maternity leave, and an hour breastfeeding break per day for six months.
The law provides for women on maternity leave to receive full salary. In the past, the women could go on leave and receive half her salary, as the employer would give the other half to her replacement. According to the current Labour Law on Maternity Protection, there is no paid leave granted to women who become pregnant in the first year of service.
The ZCTU legal advisor Tsitsi Mariwo says a survey conducted revealed that women would like maternity leave extended from three months to five months.
Furthermore, it is evident that the three months awarded women and the additional three breastfeeding months that allow the woman to devote one hour of her working hours to breastfeed her child is not enough. Many women knock off an hour earlier to go home to their babies. The majority of the babies in Zimbabwe begin formula milk and solids at three months despite the known advantages of breastfeeding.
The first days of separation are usually very trying and distressing for both the mother and they baby. In other neighbouring countries, laws provide stronger support to women on maternity leave, recognising that pregnancy is a shared responsibility between government and the society.
Though the International Labour Organisation (ILO) includes the right to 14 weeks of maternity leave, a period of six weeks compulsory leave after child birth, and cash benefits to women on leave, many countries go well beyond.
Already, many women usually take their annual leave days at the same time as their maternity leave, adding only a month to their leave. It seems a reasonable request for the women of Zimbabwe to want five months leave, gender activists hold.
They maintain that the Harare government now should seriously look into repealing the national maternity protection law in order to introduce guarantee full non-taxable salary for women on maternity leave, regardless of how long they have been working at a company. Then a next step would be the issue of paternity leave.
As women's economic empowerment have become recognised as a vital component of poverty reduction, society should also ensure that that structures are in place to support women that recognise their multiple roles in society, they hold.
By Mandisadzwa Kwangwari. Ms Kwangwari is a Zimbabwean journalist.
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