Op-Ed: Balancing work and family life - Mothers need to have more flexibility

Just 50 per cent of working-age women are in the labour force according to the United Nation’s The World’s Women 2015 report, compared to 77 per cent of men. This figure is likely underestimated, considering that many women work in informal sectors, some of them work without ever getting a salary slip each month. Women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work such as caring and housework.[1] 

The UN estimates the global population to be about 7.3 billion people in 2015, with about 49.6 per cent female, meaning the number of workingwomen is approximately 1.8 billion.

Even though the International Labour Organization (ILO) has made strong recommendations since 2000, that the minimum paid maternity leave should be at least 14 weeks[2], only 53 per cent of countries have national labour laws meeting the ILO’s recommendation.

There is no doubt that each woman has a unique situation. The number of children she has, socio economic background, education level, and support from her spouse and family members, all influence whether or not a woman can effectively juggle their work and family life.

But those differing influences can make maternity leave policy an equalizer.

Maternity leave allows for a level playing field for all women, regardless of their education, position, and socio economic background. From a CEO to a factory worker, in the eyes of a human resource policy – they should have the equal right to paid maternity leave.

If the maternity policy of a country is not supporting mothers to care for their babies, what is the cost for the future generations?

In July 2016, I conducted an anonymous online survey on the maternity protection and support implemented by World Vision (WV) offices in Asia[3]. The respondents were Asia-based staff that gave birth in the last two years.

When the 77 respondents were asked to rate the ten steps of WV’s Mother Baby Friendly Office (MBFO) movement in Asia from the most important to the least important for the success of breastfeeding, they responded with the following as the most important:

  1. Paid maternity leave
  2. Flexibility on work-related travel requirements, especially during the third trimester of pregnancy and in the first year after childbirth
  3. Flexible working hours to accommodate infant feeding and care schedule, including working from home

Since the introduction of the MBFO movement in Asia, we have seen encouraging progress, even if it sometimes happens in “baby steps”. Offices including Vietnam and India have increased their paid maternity leave from four months to six months. Indonesia and Bangladesh each added the option to take two additional months unpaid leave, on top of the four months paid leave, with the hope of increasing the likelihood of a staff member exclusively breastfeeding her baby.

In 2015, almost half of the offices taking part in the MBFO Mid Term Survey reported that their workplace had a room for breastfeeding or expressing breast milk that is private, quiet, and had electricity and a refrigerator onsite to keep milk cold.

Undeniably, it is still imperative to keep making progress.

Crucial to improving the issue of maternity leave policy globally is the role of governments, ministries, and civil societies.

When a working mom’s baby is less than one-year-old, she should have more flexibility in her schedule, such as working from home or taking frequent breaks to breastfeed or to express breast milk in the office, and permission to not travel for work.

Based on my experience in starting the MBFO in World Vision in Asia, it is much better to have support for working mothers as a written policy, instead of depending on the discretion of the manager. Rather than having diverse solutions, it is better to agree on improving the maternity protection and support for everyone as a social justice issue.

The global community needs to pay close attention as to why the exclusive breastfeeding rate is declining in many countries instead of improving.

The global community needs to pay close attention as to why the exclusive breastfeeding rate is declining in many countries instead of improving. What has been the progress of maternity leave in these countries? How many women have had to make the difficult decision of not breastfeeding their baby in order to return to work early?

When we look at how Asia Pacific countries fare regarding maternity leave and the state of breastfeeding, it helps to understand further the cultural reasons behind why flexible work arrangements have not been a popular alternative.

A 2007 report on Flexible Work Arrangement in Asia prepared by the Boston College[4] summarized the differences between the western countries (North America/Europe) and Asia, as follows: 1) that flexible work arrangements are not as prevalent in Asia as they are in the West, 2) people are typically not as aware of different options for working flexibly, 3) the mind-set that one needs “to be in office” seems more customary in Asia, 3) many countries in Asia are greatly influenced by Confucianism, which emphasizes hierarchy, and 4) Asians seems to support the concept of “harmony” in their lives.

The Flexible Work Arrangements in Asia study also found that 57% of their respondents already had a formal flexible work arrangement policy within their company. However, the expressed demand and utilization of these companies still varied by company and by country. Japan, for instance, had the strongest demand for flexible work arrangements, compared to Singapore, India, Thailand, and Taiwan.

Why should companies have more flexible work arrangement?

The Flexible Work Arrangements in Asia report noted some of the benefits of flexible work arrangements:

  • Increase employee engagement, morale, loyalty, and health
  • Demonstrate caring nature of company culture
  • Increase diversity in the workplace
  • Protect the environment by reducing traffic congestion
  • Attract and retain talent (although flexible work arrangements should not be designed only for women, such arrangements are particularly beneficial for attracting and retaining female employees.)

During this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, we need to continue looking at ways we can support women and families as a holistic unit to breastfeed and provide the best infant and young child feeding as much as possible. There are many areas in Asia where maternity protection and support can be considered as “minimal to non-existent” such as the mothers working in agriculture, factories, fisheries, or daily labourers, even in department stores and shops.

Brundtland’s definition of Sustainable Development is:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This fits perfectly with the need to support babies and families to allow for proper breastfeeding and the global commitment to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

If the global economy forces women to make decision based on their present need (to make money for their family) instead of making the best decision for their child’s health and nutrition, it will cost us greatly: human life, quality of life, and national economic outcomes.

Again I pose the question, if the maternity policy of a country is not supporting mothers to care for their babies, what is the cost for the future generations?

Learn more about appropriate breastfeeding


About the Author | Esther Indriani, MPH

Esther works closely with World Vision’s country programs in South Asia and Pacific in the design, implementation and evaluation of diverse and evidence-based public health programs, with a focus on sustainable improvements in maternal, child health, nutrition, reproductive health, and infectious diseases. She has over 18 years of experience in health and nutrition sector including: ten years of public health experience in Indonesia and; seven years of international public health experience in more than ten countries. She holds a Master of Public Health degree with Honors from Maastricht University and Post Graduate Degree on Food Security and Nutrition with Distinction from Wageningen University.

[1] Gender at Work: A Companion to the World Development Report on Jobs

[2] ILO Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183)

[3] The respondents for WV’s survey on Maternity Protection & Support in July 2016 came from 14 offices: Solomon Island, Vanuatu, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Cambodia, South Asia & Pacific Regional Office, Global Centre Office in Manila, and Malaysia.

[4] Flexible Work Arrangement in Asia: What companies are doing, why they are doing it and what lies ahead. Prepared by Boston College for the members of the Global Workforce Roundtable, October 2007.