Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Personal is Political: Maternity Protection

Aponayan/Elimination, a solo exhibition of installations and drawings by Dhali Al Mamoon, a Bangladshi artist at the Bengal Art Lounge, Dhaka.

“The personal is Political” is not just a rallying cry of some feminists rather a living experience of most women, particularly, women workers in the formal and informal economy. An issue such as ‘pregnancy’ is, indeed, a personal issue of a woman. It concerns the contentious issues of her right over her body, her emotional readiness to be a mother and make a long-term material commitment to care for a child, and her physical ability to be pregnant, carry the foetus in her womb and give birth without endangering her life.

When we look at the overall environment and specific contexts in which these ‘personal’ prerogatives of the millions of women have to be exercised, we can see how bleak the situation continues to be for women.  The situation is infested with issues of control of women and their reproduction, and regards maternity protection as a financial liability. The situation, therefore, calls for ‘political’ actions such as conscientization or critical consciousness-raising, empowerment of women, affirmative action, legalization of maternity protection, mass-protests, mobilization of men for women’s rights and so on. The old feminist adage helps see the ‘political’ dimensions or the power relationships that interrupt a personal matter. 

Photo: The Daily Star, Read the Essay: Begum Rokeya, Sultana's Dream and woman power

Bangladesh is the home to Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain (1880 – 9 Dec 1932) who wrote Sultana’s Dream (1905), perhaps the first feminist novel in the world with a sci-fi story involving a Utopia where male-female roles reverse. She spent her life working tirelessly for social reform and wrote courageously against restrictions on women, for women’s emancipation, ending the gender based division of labour.

Bangladesh is also a signatory to the Convention 183 - Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183) but it has not ratified the Convention so far. The Labour Act 2006 in the land of Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain continues to see pregnancy as an individual woman’s issue because it does not recognize men’s role in pregnancy, child-birth and in caring for a child, and it continues to treat pregnancy as a financial burden on the employer and an economic drain for the larger economy. It is far from recognizing the social returns and the economic dividend that the country gains from this individual function of women. Pregnant and lactating women and those with children who still require care are still vulnerable in the formal economy workplace and completely unprotected in the informal economy.

Discrimination against migrant Bangladeshi women workers does not make the situation look any less bleak. Most countries of destination for the migrant workers do not recruit pregnant women and the health checks within Bangladesh wean off pregnant women from the list of potential migrant workers. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia have a requirement of periodic health checks, which include pregnancy tests and as per their laws/rules they can send back women who are found to be pregnant. The stories of women being harassed and sacked after becoming pregnant in the countries of the Middle-East, or of women being made to sign pledges that they will not become pregnant, and being denied paid maternity leave are not uncommon.

One cannot even imagine the trauma that women, who have been trafficked, smuggled for forced labour or who have crossed the borders through irregular migration channels have to go through when they get pregnant.
Photo: Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights

To tie in with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 Nov 2012, the ILO, in collaboration with a number of other UN agencies, has published Maternity Resource Package to help organizations, government ministries, workers and employers organizations strengthen and extend maternity protection to women at work. The Maternity Resource Package can be accessed at:
As per the ILO, the aim of such protection is to preserve the health of the mother and her new baby and to provide economic security for the women and their families. This can be achieved through maternity leave, cash and medical benefits, health protection in the workplace, employment protection and non-discrimination, and breastfeeding at work.

Since the societies and economies gain from women’s role involving pregnancy, child-birth, and child-care, maternity protection is not just a personal issue, it is a political issue that requires a concerted political action. Maternity protection and gender equality in the process of child-care help achieve a number of development goals. ILO, therefore, regards it as a collective responsibility. It suggests that the governments, employers, recruiters and workers need to work together in a social dialogue so we can find solutions that meet the rights and the needs of the women workers in both the domestic economy and in the countries of destination where migrant Bangladeshi women live and work or aspire to go.

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