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Women’s rights

Double-edged reform

by Larisa Brown
Working mothers’ children are often left to themselves – girl in a Nairobi slum area

Working mothers’ children are often left to themselves – girl in a Nairobi slum area

In Kenya, formally employed women used to be legally entitled to two months of paid maternity leave. After that entitlement was extended by another month, private-sector companies began to shy from hiring women in childbearing ages. At the same time, cultural attitudes are changing: more single mothers are applying for jobs, and more women are working in high-level positions. By Larisa Brown

In 2007 Kenya introduced a new Employment Act which extended working mothers’ maternity leave from two months to three months. This does not affect the annual leave of one month all workers are entitled to. The extension of maternity leave fits the trends of an emerging middle class, of more single women applying for jobs and of more women working in general. Educated women today face less stigmatisation than they did in the past.

Gender imbalance

Some 2 million people are formally employed in the country according to Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics. Yet even though women account for more than half of the population, their share in formal employment is not quite 29 % and has actually dropped from above 30 % earlier.

This reversal in women’s penetration of the labour market was particularly stark after the extension of the maternity leave. From 2008 to 2009, the total number of formally employed persons rose by 56,000. Men, however, gained 73,000 jobs, whereas women lost a net 16,700 jobs.

These employment figures do not necessarily reveal a causal link between the reform and the decreasing ratio of women in the formal sector. But it does seem that maternity leave has had resounding consequences across Kenya. Venantio Karanja Mwangi, the director of Venavic, a Kenyan human resource recruitment consultancy, says: “Maternity leave is a huge challenge. Employers have become more hesitant to recruit women who are in their 20s and 30s. They do not want to pay them during pregnancy.”

He adds that employers think that young mothers, after their leave, will also take more days off, for instance when their young children get sick: “I rang up one company after they refused to give a woman a job and I wanted to know the reasons. They told me that they did not want to employ her because she had a child that was less than one year old and they thought she would be taking days off because of the child.”

On the one hand, the longer maternity leave signals a positive change in employment attitudes and seems to allow more women to work in high level positions and raise families at the same time. On the other hand, private sector leaders are complaining that businesses have to bear the burden of supporting working mothers without getting anything in return.

For small firms with few staff members, the implications of maternity leave are particularly strong, says Venantio Karanja Mwangi, the director of Venavic, a Kenyan human resource recruitment consultancy. If, for example, a small firm only has one accountant, it cannot well afford to do without her for three months, he argues.

Accordingly, a frequent issue of controversy is that women who take maternity leave are not guaranteed their jobs when they return. The person who replaced them temporarily often gets their place for good. “Last year I had six testimonies from women who had taken maternity leave and then came back to their job to find their position filled,” Mwangi reports. “Women are often demoted when they return, so it will not affect the company so much when they take time off.”

Pregnant and sacked

There are also cases of women who were not given maternity leave at all, but fired as soon as they showed signs of pregnancy. Last September, the Tailors and Textile Workers Union of Kenya accused a company in the Global Export Processing Zone on Athi river of unlawfully sacking 24 women. The trade union claimed the company had dismissed the women because they became pregnant and the company did not want them to proceed on to maternity leave.

In reality, many women in Kenya struggle to get their annual leave of one month, never mind three months of maternity leave with full pay. Mwangi says: “Sometimes women have to choose between having a baby or keeping the job.” He knows of a computer specialist who was working on a temporary contract. When she got pregnant, she lost her work.

Mwangi has observed that women above 35 get interesting corporate positions, but that the situation has become more difficult for women of child-bearing ages. “In interviews, women will be asked about their marital status and children and whether they are planning to have any more. Interviewers will sometimes dig deep as they want to assess whether they will have any work interruption other than their annual leave.”

Climbing the ladder

Mwangi took up his work 12 years ago. All summed up, his view is optimistic. “Cultural attitudes are changing,” he says. “There are more women in high level positions, as employers increasingly realise their value.” He is happy to see more women with good qualifications climbing the career ladder. “And we do see single, independent mothers managing to balance their work life and their home life.”

That balance is not easy to achieve, however. For many working women in Kenya, child care is a big issue. Who looks after the baby when maternity leave is over? And will that be good for the child? Commuting to work can take a lot of time, and traffic jams are unpredictable. Professional child care is expensive, so some parents decide to lock up their children at home. Others resort to non-formal child care, letting neighbours or grandparents supervise the kids. Another option is to hire school drop-outs as low-paid babysitters. Some women with city jobs leave their children with the grandparents in the rural areas and only rarely see their offspring (see box).

Common health advice is that exclusive breastfeeding for six months is essential for a child’s full development. This means that many full-time working mothers are depriving their babies of nutrients. In this regard, three months maternity leave is not enough. Many Kenyan mothers envy women in European countries that grant longer maternity leave.

As more women are joining the workforce, Kenya is starting to see a growth in care facilities for children too young to go to school. Some companies are investing in day care centres for their staff. Examples include Safaricom, the country’s largest mobile phone operator and Craft Silicon, a software company. When new residential estates are built, day care centres nowadays tend to be included in the plans.

To some extent, the day care industry is providing more women with formal jobs. But for the vast majority of Kenyan mothers, who do not enjoy formal employment and did not get much formal education, such facilities remain out of reach – whether they want to work or bring their children there.