Meet the press: The six months paid maternity leave and flexi-time for civil servants as recommended by the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) is likely to come through with the Cabinet welcoming the recommendation.

While the Cabinet is yet to discuss the proposed recommendations, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay during the 20th meet the press session said that six months paid maternity leave with flexi time is a progressive policy initiative and the government welcomes it.

“We would need to discuss it thoroughly in the Cabinet and we look forward to doing so,” he said.

The government had pledged to increase flexi time for new mothers because it was important, Lyonchoen said. “As a society, the government renders complete support to new mothers so that besides enjoying parenting, mothers take best possible care of their newborns.”

At the meet press session health minister Tandin Wangchuk said that increasing the maternity benefits to six months is valid from the health aspect. However, increasing the maternity leave would entail unintended implications such as cost escalation, human resource shortages and gender preference in the job market.

“So a middle path of six months paid maternity leave with flexi time is a better solution,” he said. “We understand that with the new proposal, there will be cost and other implications but not as much.”

He added that the cost increase and other implications would only be in the short and medium term and it would be outweighed by the long-term benefits of exclusive breastfeeding.

“Exclusively breastfed babies would grow up to be healthy individuals who need no significant health investments,” lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk said adding that they would also grow up to be productive adults who contribute significantly to the economic development of the country.

Following a proposal from the government in January this year and a study by the commission itself, RCSC recommended that mothers be given six month paid maternity leave. Additional recommendation was that one of the parents could stay at home for another six months on half pay. A third option that the RCSC worked out is that the parent can take up flexi time of doing 50 percent work and receive full salary. This will be in effect until the child turns a year old.

The recommendation will be put to the Cabinet for approval this month.

While the practice of breastfeeding in Bhutan is universal, it is far from optimal.  The National Nutrition, Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) Survey, 2008, indicated that the exclusive breastfeeding rates in the country for the first six months were only 10.4 percent, the minister added.

Health ministry’s proposal to RCSC stated that going by the exclusive breastfeeding figures, there is a desperate need to improve the six months exclusive breastfeeding in Bhutan. This urgency to improve the breastfeeding rate in the country was compounded by the fact that 37 percent of the children below five years are stunted, 11.1 percent underweight and 4.6 percent wasted.

Studies in other countries show that the prevalence of stunting, wasting and underweight can be improved by promoting six months exclusive breastfeeding.

“In the first 6 months of life, non-breastfed infants were more than 14 times likely to die from all causes, 10 times more likely to die from diarrhea and 15 times more likely to die from acute respiratory infection,” the proposal stated.

Health ministry had worked out six options while proposing maternity leave extension to RCSC. Providing six months of paid maternity leave with 7-12 months flexi time was the first option. Second option was to provide five months full pay leave, 50 percent pay on the sixth month and 7-12 months of flexi time.

Other options included providing three months paid maternity leave, 50 percent pay for other three months and flexi time of 7-12 months.  Having a workplace crèche was also included in the sixth option along with three months fully paid leave and another three months leave without pay with 7-12 months of flexi time.

Lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk said that besides providing wholesome nutrition for newborn, breast milk is cost effective, prevents diseases and promotes health. It substantially lowers the risk of death from infectious diseases, diarrhoea and lower respiratory infections. Reducing morbidity from gastrointestinal and allergic diseases is another benefit of breast milk.

“The current three months maternity benefits in Bhutan are not adequate to create an enabling environment for mothers to exclusively breastfeed their children for six months,” he said.

Breastfeeding benefits mothers as well with longer intervals between births that lowers risk of maternal morbidity and mortality. It reduces the risk of breast cancer rates before menopause and lowers ovarian cancer among others.

Nirmala Pokhrel