The Gambia has taken a major backward step by reducing the Maternal Leave policy from six months to three months as contained in the Revised General Orders Code of Conduct and Public Service Rules and Regulations, clause 04110.
Increasing the Maternity Leave from twelve (12) to twenty four (24) weeks in 2010 was a major, progressive and bold move that was acclaimed globally as an important step in protecting, respecting and maintaining child and women’s rights particularly the reproductive healthand employment rights of women. This move also put The Gambia in the same league as the countries that provide the most paid maternity leave by law according to the ILO.
The increase in the provision of Maternal Leaveenacted by the National Assembly on Tuesday April 12, 2010 in the National Women’s Act 2010, was a commendable move for The Gambia. Domestication of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the African Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa when a number of African States were still grappling with the challenges of ratification and domestication of these instruments was a laudable feat.
The Act wasentitled “An Act to implement the legal provisions of National Policy for the Advancement of Gambian Women and Girls, and to incorporate and enforce the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) on the Rights of Women in Africa.”
The Act which became enforceable in The Gambia upon receipt of the requisite Presidential Assentdoes not limit or restrict the incorporation and enforcement of any provisions of the CEDAW and the ACHPR on the Rights of Women in Africa.
It provided hope for the women in upholding their legal status as contained in the national and international instruments. It is also provided an assurance of equality between men and women in The Gambia and the development of a more just, equitable, peaceful and prosperous society.
Initially presented as the Women’s Bill, the Act had gone through various stages of consultation and validation before being passed by the National Assembly. The consultative process involved all stakeholders including, the legal profession, the judiciary, parliamentarians, senior government officials and policy makers, religious and traditional leaders, grass roots women, community leaders, the private sector and civil society organizations.
The Act provides for specific areas relating to the rights of women including Discrimination against Women (in employment); Provisions CoveringMaternityLeave; Protection of and Health and Safety at Work; Discrimination inMarriage or Maternity; Support Services; And,Protection duringPregnancy.
Part 5 of the Act recognises the fundamental importance of the triple role of women and the need to protect their reproductive role to ensure their effective contribution to the socio- economic development of the country.
Child birth and child rearing are important functions not only for the family but for the perpetuation of society. In carrying out this important rolewomen’s rights need to be protected and not penalised. Thus mandatory adequate compensation during the period of pregnancy and lactation is made under this section to ensure that women in The Gambia are not disadvantaged in any way during this crucial, yet very important period in the human cycle.
To this effect Section 20 extends the maternity leave period to six months paid leave and another six months unpaid leave. It also affords the father the opportunity to take part, and take responsibility in the upbringing of children. Provisions state that:
“(1) Every woman is entitled to a period of six months maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefit without loss of employment, seniority or similar benefits.
(2) Every woman is entitled to a further six months unpaid maternity leave without loss of her employment, seniority or similar benefit.
Compliance with the Act is mandatory and non-compliance may attract criminal penalty as prescribed in Sections 73 and 74 of the Act. All government, public institutions and the private sector wererequired to ensure the incorporation of the provisions of the Actinto all public documents and instruments, and the internal regulations and policy guidelines. In spite of this provision there was much resistance to some sections of the Act particularly to the six months Maternity Laeve and the Paternity Leave from the private sector so it is not surprising that new administration has finally succumbed to this resistance.
A major outcome of the law is the improvement of the exclusive breastfeeding rates. The Gambia Report (2015) to the World Breast Feeding Trend Initiatives (WBTi) shows a marked improvement from 2.5 in 2008 to 48 percent in 2015. This is attributed to the Women’s Act 2010 which provides women6 months (24 weeks) paid leave.
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is very crucial for survival, growth and development of infant and young children. It lowers the risk ofillness, particularly from diarrheal diseases. It also prolongs lactation, amenorrhea in mothers who breast feed frequently. The reduction of the maternal leave to 12 weeks threatens the high exclusive breastfeeding trends noted in The Gambia, especially among working mothers. Going back to work at three months brings an abrupt end to the practice as there are no facilities in the workplaces such as creches that permit lactating mothers to take their babies to work. There are no breastfeeding breaks to permit a lactating mother feed her baby on n demand.
The reproductive rights of the mother are also threatened. In addition to these threats The Women’s Torch questions the legality of the change. Taking into consideration the extensive consultations that preceded the Act it is not evident that there were adequate consultations before it could be amended.
Photo/MRC The Gambia : Gambian mother in Keneba breastfeeding her infant