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    Volume 9 Issue 18| April 30, 2010|

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Human Rights

The Working Woman's Dilemma

Elita Karim

The government should create policies that will ensure a woman her right to work and make sure that a child is provided for. Photo: Zahedul I khan

The recent proposal by the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs regarding a six-month fully paid maternity leave instead of the usual four months for working women in government service has brought about mixed feelings amongst women working in different sectors of the society. Firstly, women working in the private sector are demanding to know why the private service was left out of this proposal, since a large number of women work in private services, especially in the garments sector. Secondly, many ask if the mere two-month increase in the maternity leave will actually solve the problems that working mothers face even today.

According to a The Daily Star news report, Laila Jesmin, the Deputy Secretary (administration) of the Women and Children Affairs Ministry stressed on the fact that the six-month leave would help solve the country's malnutrition problem. A working mother would now be able to nurse her baby for six months after birth, which indeed has many advantages for the infant's health and plays a significant role in preventing early illness and death.

The decision has also confused female workers working in the private sector, especially the ones in the garments sector. Despite the fact that the Labour Law Act 2006 was considered to have created a small time revolution in the country, a large number of garments workers are still deprived of their basic rights, as per the Labour Law Act.

Mushrefa Mishu, General Secretary of the Democratic Revolution Party and also the President of Garment Workers Unity Forum, says that the government should explain the policy that they promise to implement very soon. Can the government guarantee that the jobs will be waiting for the women, after they return from their six-month maternity leave? Presently, even though the law grants a four-month maternity leave to women workers in both the government and private sectors, the job posts are sometimes filled up by new employees during their absence.

The decision has confused female workers working in the private sector, especially the ones in the garments sector.

“According to the compliance law 2006, expecting women, working in the garments factories, are to be given a four-month maternity leave with pay,” says Mishu. “But in reality, that is not happening, despite the fact that the compliance law is being strictly implemented. I have been working in this industry for the last 15 years and I have witnessed plenty of problems caused due to expecting female workers not getting their pay and / or their leaves accordingly. Only a handful of these industries and factories actually abide by the compliance law. Similar problems are seen with female employees in the NGO sector as well, where the number of women workers is increasing every day.”

Because of an increase in the number of nuclear families, the government should create policies that will ensure a woman her right to work for a living and at the same time make sure that a child is well provided for. The woman, being the primary caregiver to the child, should be given more support by the government. For instance, there should be a day care centre at every office, both public and private, so that working mothers can perform well and professionally in a relaxed environment.

Even though the step taken by the government is a positive one, Rumeen Farhana believes that a two-month increase is not enough to solve the hordes of problems faced by the working women every day in Bangladesh. Barrister at Law, Advocate at the Bangladesh Supreme Court, Farhana says that she has come across several cases where the work contracts are designed in a way that would easily dissuade a woman from stepping inside the office. “I remember a contract where the terms had clearly mentioned that a woman employee would not be given the four-month maternity leave as prescribed by law,” she says. “The contract also mentioned that considerations would be made in the case of an expecting employee, whereupon a two-month maternity leave would be granted in the case of the first child. However, none would be granted if the employee decided to have a second child! Despite all the education and the exposure that the female receives today, it is because of such contracts that ultimately, the woman is forced to sacrifice her financial independence.”

Yet another step that the government can take is introduce a provision for applying for paternity leaves for fathers. Even though the term is new for Bangladesh, the concept, in practicality, is quite accepted by many working men and women. Because of the huge increase in the number of women getting into professional workforce, especially in the later part of the twentieth century, many men were compelled to take their roles as caregivers seriously and share household responsibilities with women. Thus, for many of the working husbands, it simply makes more sense if the government worked on a paternity leave policy as well. Zakir Hussain, a prominent photo journalist, had to use his casual and earned leaves to help his wife take care of their new born baby girl. “I wish we men could get a paternity leave from the office just like the women who are granted a maternity leave,” he says. “That would make life so much easier!”

Before deciding to finally put the policy into action, the government must research further into this issue. In the last decade, because of the expansion of the private sector, a huge number of women have become a part of this sector. Therefore, it would be difficult for the government to ignore this massive workforce. Moreover, more innovative and practical methods should be introduced by the government, which will enable and encourage both working men and women to take care of their children and share tasks, instead of simply expecting a woman to take on her conventional roles.

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