Kanyange’s (not her real name) baby is crying intermittently as they wait to meet a doctor at a health care centre in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. “My baby has been like this over the last two days, this started just after I had returned to work after my six week maternal leave had expired”. The doctor’s instructions brought more concerns to the 35 year old mother who was told she needs to get more time to breastfeed the baby. In charge of social affairs into the Rwandese local governments, she had just reported back to work after six weeks of maternal leave because she feared losing 80% of her salary.
The current labour law in Rwanda, adopted in 2009, stipulates that a mother is entitled to a maternity leave of 12 weeks. The first 6 weeks are automatic with full salary pay and when a mother extends her leave to another six weeks she earns only 20 % of her salary.
Jowe Kabibi Kacyira, working for the Central Trade Union of Workers of Rwanda (CESTRAR), says “Most mothers decide to go back to work after the first six weeks because they fear losing 80% of their salaries their main source of income”. In that situation according to Kacyira some mothers end up getting back to work before they are physically fit.
Rwandan mothers no longer wait the daily bread from home but as they concentrate on work, giving birth is equally important. Rwanda’s Fourth Population and Housing Census conducted in 2012 puts the official working age population in Rwanda (aged 16 and above) at 5.85 million individuals. Among them 3.13 million (53.5%) are females. Rwandan women are the hardest hit with unemployment rate of 4% as compared to 2.8% among males.
Trade unions in Rwanda are pushing for the government to put in place measures that will allow the increasing number of female workers to compete with male on the job market without discrimination based on women‘s family responsibility. Some believe ratifying the international Convention No. 183 on maternity protection would be a right choice for the country whose Parliament is dominated by women holding 64% of seats.
“We are having problems related to the non-ratification of that Convention (Convention No. 183)” believes Dominique Bicamumpaka, the president of the Congress of Labor and Workers Brotherhood (COTRAF). “We have registered cases of mothers who lost their jobs during their absence either due to maternity leave or pregnancy”.
ILO Convention No. 183 provides 14 weeks of a paid maternity leave. It prohibits the exposure of a pregnant woman or nursing mother to work that can be harmful to her health and that of her baby. The Convention also provides for the protection from discrimination based on maternity and termination of employment of a woman during pregnancy or on maternity leave.
In its report “Maternity and Paternity at Work: Law and practice across the world” published in May 2014, the UN agency specialized on labour issues said around 830 million women do not have adequate maternity protection. Almost 80 per cent of these workers are in Africa and Asia. As of now Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Morocco are the only African countries that have ratified ILO Convention No. 183.
Rwanda has so far ratified 28 international labour Conventions and according to Paul Ruzindana, the Legal Advisor at the Ministry of Public Services and Labor, the process of ratifying Conventions is based on the country’s ability to implement them. “We have to consider whether we have infrastructures and means that will allow us to implement a Convention. It would not be right to ratify a Convention and not implement it”. Debates are now underway in Rwanda to look into ways of establishing a maternity fund that for trade unions and women would be a helpful alternative.
Guebray Berhane, the Senior Communication and Public Information Officer at the ILO Regional Office for Africa, says Convention No. 183 is demanding and rewarding as well. “What the Convention is saying is that there is a need for a shared understanding for a negotiation and a discussion.”
“This is why we believe maternity protection will be more of an investment rather than a cost not only for the employers, not only for the workers, not only for the government itself but for the whole country” says the Addis Ababa based ILO Senior Officer.