By Aisha Sarwari
October 10th, 2015
Women have been giving birth since antiquity, and have been exiting the job market to do that since the past century. However, until recently, no one across Pakistan's corporate world bothered to pay attention and accommodate the primal need of giving birth.
Telenor, which is well-known for its Human Resource-focused policies, has adopted a 6-month paid maternity leave policy. This cannot be celebrated enough.
Now, maybe, these women won’t have to sit back on their sore post-birth stitches once they get back to work 10 days after giving birth, like I did.
I also know women who have had to mop the water that broke on the office floor after they returned to work. In their quest to use as little as possible of their one-month leave, most women, even in leading organisations, stay on at work right until they practically pop.
It is utterly tragic that the institution of motherhood, which breathes life miraculously into another being, should be treated in such a shoddy way by corporations.
Exploitative in nature, these organisations put the onus on women to prove that they are as far from the notion of procreation as they can be – they are hired less, they are promoted less and they are certainly appreciated a lot less as they waddle across cubicles as if it were a foreign object they carried in their womb, borne out of an act you’d rather not think about at the office.
Mothers should be able to return to work without the urgency to prove that they are not hormone-crazed and can in fact, type up a memo or lead a meeting.
They should also not have to choose between tending to the new life they made and having a career – each distinctly separate and necessary aspects of being both a woman and a two-legged social animal with an intelligence quotient.
The only other company that I know comes a close second is the Pakistan Tobacco Company (PTC), which has a three-month paid leave policy with an additional three-month unpaid leave option. Being a mother does not end with cutting the umbilical cord; mothers need to also tend to their babies afterwards (in Pakistan’s case, almost always without any male family member’s help).
PTC also has arrangements for subsidised daycare facilities at the premises. The company is extremely gracious with work-from-home days in the event that a mother needs to soothe an ailing ear infection of a child or catch up on sleep debt of a colic-prone baby.
As for the rest of the professional world, the less said about them the better.
By far, the biggest tragedy of our country is the exclusion that women face when it comes to financial independence and control. Instead of working around the fact that women need flexibility in their employment terms during their child-bearing years, Pakistani organisations actually prefer to opt out of having to deal with them entirely.
For those tough cookies that enter the market and find a way to stick through, they find that they are constantly on the defensive.
They over perform, over compensate and over deliver to stay in the game.
In the end, someone without a uterus and a breastfeeding job to do gets promoted despite women’s best efforts, often on double the pay.
In a world where companies with female-friendly policies lead HR practices, we may just have the world which Facebook COO and author of Lean In Sheryl Sandberg envisioned:
In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.
The problem is that these companies can be counted on one’s right foot’s toes. The other problem is that a lot of the Pakistani sole proprietorships or seth companies feel no pressure to have laws at par with international labour standards.
As a matter of fact, they don't feel any pressure to follow any laws because of a general irreverence towards them, and also because historically, no company has been punished by the courts for non-conformance of maternity leaves.
Article 37(e) of the Constitution of Pakistan asks for maternity benefits. Specifically, The Maternity Benefit Ordinance, 1958 stipulates that after four months of employment, an employee may have up to six weeks of prenatal/postnatal leave. It also says that she will draw a salary based on her last pay.
Also read: Working mothers and daycare centres
Sadly, as reality stands, we would need an entire library to file in complaints of women who were dismissed for taking maternity leaves. The manufacturing and industry sectors are worse off.
In rural East Africa, where I grew up, women would be back in the field soon after birth, baby on the back with a sickle, cutting corn in the fields, because they needed to feed the family. No one should have to be that brave.
Aisha Sarwari is an Islamabad-based writer. She tweets @AishaFSarwari and blogs here.