Assembly: Of the 9,228 women civil servants in the country, 606 have availed the six months maternity leave, according to a report labour minister Ngeema Sangay Tshempo submitted to the National Assembly yesterday.

The minister also said that the ministry conducted studies on the possibility of increasing maternity leave for women working in the corporate and private sectors.

“We held various consultations with stakeholders and created awareness to provide maternity leave,” Ngeema Sangay Tshempo said. “We could not issue directives to the private and corporate sector to increase the maternity leave, as it would have implication on women’s employment too.”

The labour minister also presented a list of private and corporate companies that implemented maternity leave and highlighted that Bhutan Postal Corporation  provides six months maternity leave to its women employees. “We are encouraging organisations to open child care centres that would benefit working mothers,” he said.

Members of the opposition party, however, raised concerns that the government’s inability to enforce the maternity leave in the private and corporate sector would have negative impacts.

Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho said it is necessary to implement maternity leave in all sectors. “It’s of grave concern that the policy is not implemented uniformly,” he said. “We have always raised the concern of implementing the six months maternity leave in the private sector.”

Nubi-Tangsibji MP, Nidup Zangpo, said if the government cannot implement maternity leave uniformly, the government is not fulfilling its pledges.

Khar-Yurung MP, Zangley Dukpa, said while it is of utmost importance to provide six months maternity leave to mothers so that children can benefit, implementing the policy in the civil service would widen the difference in growth and intellect of children of civil servants and others. “If we just implement this policy in the civil service and leave out the private and corporate sector, and farmers, it will have a negative impact.”

Drametse- Ngatsang MP Ugyen Wangdi, suggested the government explore the possibility of waiving off tax for private companies who implement six months maternity leave.

The works and human settlement minister, Dorji Choden, said it is not practical for the government to implement maternity leave in all sectors at one go.

She cited the example of how Bhutan’s aspiration to achieve 100 percent drinking water supply was done phase wise. “Similarly, we cannot implement maternity leave in all sectors at one go,” she said. “The very fact that government took the step to implement it in the civil service is an achievement.”

But Lamgong-Wangchag MP, Khandu Wangchuk, said while it is not possible to implement the policy at one go, the main objective of discussing the policy is to help all Bhutanese children. “So this policy should benefit all sectors for the larger benefit,” he said.

He also said that it is necessary to have a time frame to implement the policy. “Comparing it with drinking water supply is not practical, as maternity leave is a policy and it should be implemented uniformly in all sectors.”

He also said it is not fair to just frame the policy and keep postponing the uniform implementation.

Bumthang’s Chumey-Ura MP, Tshewang Jurme, said the discussion should not be on party lines but on how it is going to benefit Bhutanese children.

Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, said some MPs were raising points to defame the government and such discussions are not healthy for the country.

Lyonchoen asked why the Nubi-Tangsibji MP, despite knowing the benefits, is questioning the policy.

He said while the Khar-Yurung MP, Zangley Dukpa, who was the former health minister, talked about the importance of granting maternity leave to all sectors, he doesn’t understand why the former government did not implement maternity leave. “Was it because of their lack of support for women or because of lack of capability to implement it.”

Lyonchoen read the names of 15 women teachers who had to forgo their maternity leave and join service.

He also said the government conducted a secret study on implementation of maternity leave among farmers. “It had to be done secretly, as it would raise hopes and expectations of farmers if the study was conducted openly.”

Panbang MP, Dorji Wangdi, took the opportunity to clarify his stand in a different discussion and said as MPs, it is their responsibility to question the government. “We are all elected by people and we are all MPs here. I don’t know if anyone has the authority to say such things in the Assembly,” he said.  “It’s our responsibility to provide check and balance to the government.”

Meanwhile, speaker Jigme Zangpo asked the government to continue working with the private and corporate sector to implement maternity leave.

“It’s important to study if relevant agencies conducted awareness,” he said.

The Speaker also asked the government to report to the House an update on the implementation of maternity leave in the private sector during the next session.

Tashi Dema