After much speculation, the cabinet has endorsed the six-month paid maternity leave along with another six months of flexi time. The leave for civil servants could come into effect from January 1.
This is a laudable decision. In a governance system where social welfare receives top priority, such initiatives bode well with our philosophy of happiness. Backed by reasoning based on health grounds, women will be able to exclusively breastfeed their babies and when work is not interrupting, childcare will improve.
Bhutan will join some of the developed nations where paid maternity leave is guaranteed for working mothers. In fact, we will be better than some of these countries. For instance, Germany has 12 weeks at 65 percent of the salary. The Netherlands and Spain gets 16 weeks with 100 percent salary. Bhutan with 24 weeks will be among the best working places for mothers in the world.
The question is what about the others. Soon after the news of the decision, both women and men outside the civil service are questioning if the facility would stretch to them. Some are assuming it will. And there are good reasons.
The proposal for the leave from the health ministry starts with defining exclusive breastfeeding followed by how important it is and why Bhutan needs to improve the breast feeding rate. There is a desperate need to increase the leave to six months, it says.
Going by the reasons, there is no question on why it should not stretch to public corporations and for that matter, the private sector. According to the health ministry, the urgency comes from the fact that 37 percent of the children below five years of age are stunted and 11 percent underweight. This is attributed to poor breastfeeding. They found out that this could be improved by promoting six months exclusive breastfeeding.
If this is to improve, the leave should extend to other sectors. There are about 9,000 in the civil service, but what percentage do they represent the women population? If the breastfeeding rate is to improve, all mothers should be considered. Malnutrition or stunting is more prevalent in rural areas, among illiterate and poor mothers. How are we going to include them?
While we take pride in the decision, there are so many things to be considered. The argument that the number of jobseekers wanting to become civil servants will increase is not a big concern. There are systems that will take care of that. What is a bigger concern is not including them, those working in corporations and private sector.
The proposal although endorsed is still a work in progress meaning that there are things that needs to be fine tuned. Decision makers should look into these issues before it comes into effect. Critics are of the view that the government used the health ministry to fulfil one its campaign pledges. Those benefiting from the pledge will be grateful to the government, but if it is for votes, the government will know that there more voters outside the civil service.
There is no doubt that longer maternity leave would improve breastfeeding and strongly impact the rest of the child’s life. There is also no doubt that only a section of the society should not benefit from a policy.