Mum has Birth Rights, Too

The question of maternity leave made it to the front pages recently, not as an issue of social concern but as celebrity news. The woman in question - French Minister of Justice Rachida Dati - had returned to work just five days after giving birth to a baby girl. Dati is also the first politician of North African origin to hold a senior cabinet post in France. There has, in any case, been a lot of "chatter" about this single mum, who has had her first child at 43. Her life style, her management style, her clothes and her love life have been in the news for a while now. But when Dati decided to return to work a mere five days after giving birth to a baby girl, she became the focus of international attention.

Actually, Dati did not have many options: She could have stayed out of office and gone on unpaid leave because while all women in France are guaranteed 16 weeks of paid maternity leave by law, the same leave does not apply to ministers.

According to her friends, Dati went back to work as soon as she could because she was aware that if she stayed away too long she would lose her job. There are reports that her leadership style was under question because she was accused of pushing through some major reforms without sufficient consultations. In fact, her term has seen several ministry aides resigning. Quite possibly, many of her colleagues could have used her potential absence from the Ministry as an excuse to force the Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, to remove her from her post.

But whatever her personal compulsions, Dati's decision to resume work within five days has provoked fierce criticism from women's groups, who believe that she has set a bad example. In their opinion Dati, as Minister of Justice, should be supporting working mothers' maternity benefits instead of seemingly disregarding rights accorded to French women after a great deal of struggle. They accused her of signaling to women professionals that they should, in order to keep their jobs, get back to work after childbirth as soon as possible.

Incidentally, France enacted a new law in March 2007 that offers women greater flexibility in availing their maternity leave. They can, for instance, reduce the period of antenatal maternity leave by a maximum of three weeks and increase the period of postnatal leave accordingly. So, to be kind to Dati, one could argue that she was merely taking advantage of this new flexibility, albeit in a rather extreme way.

In December 2008, the European Union (EU) proposed that all 27 member states accept a minimum of 18 weeks of maternity leave and that this would include those who are self-employed. But the governments of Germany and the UK have already opposed this move. The UK has stated that the new ruling could hinder flexibility for working mothers and damage the careers of those desperate to get back to work sooner than six weeks after giving birth. The German view is that the country "already have a generous maternity package of 14 weeks and adding another four weeks to their national package would be too costly and that it would discourage job creation."

The research carried out in Europe prior to the framing of the proposed EU legislation showed a great variation across Europe. In some countries maternity leave is for 12 weeks, in others, 14 to 15 weeks. In some countries, parental leave comes in under the banner of maternity leave. A few countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, encourage fathers to take parental leave.

Nicola Brewer, Chief Executive of Equalities and Human Rights Commission of the UK, pointed out that traditional patterns were being re-enforced in the proposed EU legislation and called for "a significant rethink of family policy". She believed that in some ways "generous maternity benefits had entrenched the assumption that only mothers brought up children and this (assumption had) failed to hasten a social revolution where both parents were equally responsible for caring for their children. It was not a case of taking away the new rights for mothers but extending them to fathers." She emphasized the need for this matter of maternity leave and parental leave to be considered as "a social argument as well as an economic one."

What is missing in this "enhanced rights to maternity leave package" presented by Vladmir Spidia, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, is the need to balance paid maternity leave and paid parental leave. What the Commissioner has accepted is that "having children too often costs women their income and their job prospects - only 62 per cent of women with dependent children are in work compared with 91 per cent of men."

In a new study, "Babies and Bosses", published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it is stated that "... In many [industrialized economies] an increasing female [especially maternal] labor supply is seen as being important to maintaining economic growth and ensuring sustainable pension and social protection systems more generally..."

Rachida Dati appears to be lucky. She will, in all probability, be able to move from one well-paid job to another. In June, she is standing for election as a European Member of Parliament for the Paris Region and will almost certainly be elected. If she does go to Brussels, she will no doubt be asked at some point to address the crucial issue of maternity rights because all signs indicate that an increasing number of households will become dependent on the female maternal wage earner.

Seventeen years ago, in 1992, when Segolene Royal was France's Minister for the Environment, she appeared in a glossy magazine holding her new baby - her fourth - with files from her Ministry scattered all over the hospital bed. She was quoted as having said that through the photograph she "wanted to show that a woman in a senior position could also have children and a steady partnership."

For professional women in Europe wishing to continue along their career paths after motherhood nothing much has changed over the last 17 years. But thanks to Dati, the debate continues.


More by :  Bettina Corke

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