By Odedere Aanuoluwapo


According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), Maternity protection has two objectives: 

‘the first is to preserve the health of the mother and her newborn; and the second is to provide a measure of job and income security (protection from dismissal and discrimination, the right to resume work after leave, and maintenance of wages and incomes during maternity)’. However the question remains whether these laws have been effective in protecting pregnant women in workplaces across African countries. This question remains evidently important, as women in various sectors struggle to strike a balance between healthy pregnancy, childbirth and work performance. Here are some of their stories: 

Some months ago, I had walked into an office and met a woman, who was in charge of the administrative activities of an organisation, in Lagos, Nigeria. I asked about her job and how she was coping with moving “from home to work”, as the connecting road was in a very bad state. In response, she lamented on how she had lost a pregnancy once, after falling off a motorbike on her way to work, while the driver was manoeuvring through the dozens of potholes scattered across the untarred road.  I was sorry for her loss. She knew the roads were bad, but she needed to earn a living. 

The other day, my neighbour had shared a story of how she lost one of her closest friends. Her friend as described by her, was hardworking and kept to her work schedule, despite being pregnant.  However, she was advised severally by well-meaning individuals to take time off work due to the stresses involved, advice we all wished she heeded. Prior to her delivery, she collapsed at work and never returned home alive. My neighbour considers her death to be related to workplace stress although I am of the opinion that she wasn’t wrong to desire economic independence.

My friend had a pause on her career because she was pregnant, she had been to some interviews, but no company was willing to employ a woman who would be going on maternity leave in a few months; it wasn’t good for business. Her break has been lengthened by child rearing, as she raises her bundle of joy.

I fear there’s no data to track this trend, or hospital records to show that one of the factors contributing to maternal mortality could be work-related stress. There is a whole bunch of data on medical conditions such as pre-eclampsia, obstructed labour, postpartum heamorrahage, and pre-term labour, without an in-depth study on the social determinants and root causes of these conditions.

According to WHO, about 830 women lose their lives due to pregnancy or child-related complications daily. In 2015, UNICEF estimated that Nigeria has a Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) of 814/100,000 live births, this is quite high compared to neighbouring countries like Ghana, with an MMR of 319/100,000 live births, and Togo with an MMR of 368/100,000. A wider gap is observed when maternal mortality ratio in sub-Saharan Africa countries are compared with developed countries like Finland and Denmark, with 3/100,000 live births and 6/100,000 live births respectively.

A closer look shows a relationship between good maternal laws such as a lengthened period of maternity leave, provision of full or part payment during such period, possibility of returning to work and reduced maternal mortality rates. Finland with an MMR of 3/100,000 live births, offers maternity leave of 105 weeks, with pay from the Finnish Social Insurance Institution for 105 working days, once certain conditions have been fulfilled. Pregnant women have access to maternity allowance from 154 days into pregnancy, which would undoubtedly allow a pregnant woman to stay off work, when she considers her pregnancy is at risk, without worrying about financial security. Denmark on the other hand, with an MMR of 6/100,000 live births offers a 52 weeks of parental leave, with full or partial payment, depending on the agreement with the employer.

In many tribes in Nigeria, the pressure of having a child after marriage lies mainly on the shoulders of the woman. Three months after marriage, in-laws are already waiting for signs of a protruding belly. How then does she explain her fears; the fear of losing her source of income due to her pregnancy, or the fear of discrimination at work due to a drop in performance relating to unplanned absenteeism. How does she explain that her regular miscarriages are due to work pressures. Yet women should not be forced to choose between having a family and building a career, they should not be forced to choose between losing a job or losing a pregnancy, they should not be forced to choose between pursuing a career or raising a child. Women’s dreams should not stop, when they get pregnant.

Surprisingly, there are maternity protection laws enacted to address these issues, though the level of compliance to this law among employers is unknown. In Nigeria, section 54 of the labour law provides an explicit explanation of a woman’s access to 12 weeks maternity leave, with at least 50% pay if she has been employed for six months or more and a break of 30 minutes twice a day to breastfeed her child, if she is a nursing mother. 

To achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3, target 1; which is to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030, maternity protection is a key driver to its success. More African countries should ratify and implement the maternity protection law; ILO convention 183. and Recommendation No. 191 (2000), which comprise five core elements of maternity protection: maternity leave; cash and medical benefits; health protection at the workplace for the mother and unborn child during pregnancy, as well as during breastfeeding; employment protection and non-discrimination: Moreover, a woman cannot be discriminated against while at work or while searching for work because of her reproductive role; breastfeeding arrangements to help workers breastfeed or express milk at the workplace.

Employers could also provide the option of working remotely where possible for pregnant and nursing mothers. Health professionals monitoring pregnant women should ensure that they issue reports of ill health or necessitated bed rest of any working pregnant woman. A workplace creche would also help nursing mothers navigate through the six months exclusive breastfeeding, with little impact on productivity and help with focus at work.

To achieve a balanced world, and reduce gender gap in workplaces, women should be allowed to grow their career as they grow their families.