Assembly: The opposition and government were at loggerheads over the issue of extended maternity leave while deliberating the Women, Children and Youth Committee’s report on implementation of the resolution of the sixth session yesterday.

Of the five resolutions on various issues that the committee presented, maternity leave extension dominated the discussions.

Opposition members expressed concerns over implications in the health and education sectors following the extended maternity leave in the civil service besides the possibility of leading to female unemployment with agencies opting for male employees.

Leader of the Opposition (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said that the six-month maternity leave for women working in the civil service has benefited just three percent of the women in the country. “Before endorsing the six-month maternity leave, women in the non-civil sector should have been considered as well,” he said.

North Thimphu’s representative Kinga Tshering expressed doubt over the committee’s recommendation on extending maternity leave in non-civil service sectors.

The biggest issue in the country, he said was youth unemployment, which is more prominent among women. Rather than imposing the extended maternity leave in other sectors, he said the government must maintain an account first to study the implications of extended maternity leave in the civil service.

Citing the example of the requirement of research assistants for Parliamentarians as approved by the Royal Civil Service Commission, he said the choice could be men over women.  “The six-month maternity will have implications on female unemployment,” he said.

Explaining how the extended maternity leave would not only benefit mothers’ health besides promoting exclusive breastfeeding practices, works and human settlement minister Dorji Choden said that the proposal was well consulted with all relevant agencies and implemented accordingly.

“It’s not that we haven’t thought about women working beyond the civil service,” she said. “But to begin with, it had to be the civil service as other sectors are not within the government’s control.”

As the government was also concerned of extending the same facility to women working in other sectors, Lyonpo Dorji Choden said they wrote to the labour ministry, Druk Holdings and Investment, and the finance ministry to look into the possibility of extending maternity leave in the private and state-owned enterprises. “There will be issues but we request all agencies to look into it,” lyonpo said.

Lyonpo Dorji Choden also said that women avail longer duration leave for various reasons such as studies or on medical grounds, which is not considered much of an issue. “Now that women get six months maternity leave, it has become an issue with talks on appointing substitutes and so on,” she said.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay also reiterated that there are bigger issues to be concerned about rather than the six-month maternity leave for working mothers in the civil service.

Lyonchoen said all members supported the maternity leave extension verbally but were still skeptical. “There could be issues but in agencies where working mothers are employed and not on women,” he said.

Lyonchoen further said that as men, it was easier to point out issues while only a mother would know the difficulties of child bearing and rearing, and of having to carry the child in the womb for nine months. Despite support from fathers, he said that a woman suffers more in rearing a child after it’s born.

On extending maternity leave to women working in other sectors, Lyonchoen said that the government would try to intervene wherever possible if it was legally viable. “We could come up with a regulation on maternity leave to benefit all women irrespective of where she works,” Lyonchoen said. “But this could have implications that needs to be well pondered upon.”

On North Thimphu representative’s concerns on the possibility of female employees not being recruited for the post of researchers at Parliament, Lyonchoen said women are equally capable.

“Why aren’t women capable of taking up jobs as researchers when the job doesn’t entail strength,” Lyonchoen said. “If we don’t change the mindset among ourselves, we can’t expect others to do the same.”

(Dr) Pema Gyamtsho clarified that the opposition was not against the six-month maternity leave but was suggesting that the government work out the details in implementing it.

Such issues, he said, should be sorted out right from the start to avoid it from becoming major in future. “We are not saying that Bhutanese women are not capable or don’t deserve maternity leave extension,” he said, while adding that even in UN organisations, women don’t get six months maternity leave. “If a female parliament member goes on six months maternity leave, should we conduct a bye-election for a substitute?”, he said.

“Today, we gained new knowledge that a woman carries a child in the womb for nine months and rears a child,” he said in response to Lyonchoen’s statement on the difficulties a woman endures as a mother.

With regard to extending the maternity leave in other sectors, labour minister Ngeema Sangay Tshempo said that it was a work in progress.

Lyonpo said that there are about 31,974 women employees in the private sector today and that they are equally concerned. “We are looking for a middle path in providing the same facility to working mothers in the private sector,” he said. “Consultations are still being continued so we can’t just rush because it is implemented in the civil service.”

Meanwhile, the discussion also centered around recommendations on the need to endorse the National Youth Action Plan, formation of a high-level inter agency task force to ratify the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, implementation status of the National Policy and Strategic Framework to reduce harmful use of Alcohol 2013-2018, and a teenage pregnancy reporting mechanism.

Some members, however, expressed concerns over reporting teenage pregnancies as it could come in conflict with existing laws.

Kinga Dema