Maternity Protection

Maternity leave: Women's survival vs. family responsibilities in Rwanda

Most women make a choice between their own survival and family responsibilities. This is where the ILO Convention on maternity protection comes in.

Feature | 22 October 2014
KIGALI (ILO News) – Kanyange’s (not her real name) baby is crying intermittently as they wait to meet a doctor at a health care centre in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. “My baby has been like this over the last two days. This started just after I had returned to work after my six-week maternity leave had expired.”

The doctor’s instructions brought more concerns to the 35-year old mother who was told she needs to get more time to breastfeed the baby. In charge of social affairs at the Rwandese local government, she had just reported back to work after six weeks of maternity leave because she feared losing 80 per cent of her salary.

The current labour law in Rwanda, adopted in 2009, stipulates that a mother is entitled to a maternity leave of 12 weeks. The first six weeks are automatic with full salary pay. When a mother extends her leave by another six weeks she earns only 20 per cent of her salary. The employer covers the full cost of these maternity leave cash benefits.

Jowe Kabibi Kacyira, working for the Central Trade Union of Workers of Rwanda (CESTRAR), says, “Most mothers decide to go back to work after the first six weeks because they fear losing 80 per cent of their salaries – their main source of income.” According to Kacyira, some mothers end up getting back to work before they are physically fit.

In some communities women continue to stay at home in line with strong cultural views while men remain the main breadwinners. However, this is changing and many Rwandan women now go out to work. Rwanda’s Fourth Population and Housing Census conducted in 2012 puts the official working population in Rwanda (aged 16 and above) at 5.85 million individuals. Among them, 3.13 million (53.5 per cent) are females. Rwandan women are the hardest hit with an unemployment rate of 4 per cent as compared to 2.8 per cent among males.

Combatting discrimination


Trade unions in Rwanda are pushing for the government to put in place measures that will allow the increasing number of female workers to compete with males on the job market without discrimination based on family responsibility. Some believe ratifying the ILO Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183) would be a right choice for a country whose Parliament is dominated by women holding 64 per cent of seats.

“We are having problems related to the non-ratification of that Convention (Convention No. 183)” says Dominique Bicamumpaka, the president of the Congress of Labor and Workers Brotherhood (COTRAF). “We have registered cases of mothers who lost their jobs during their absence, either due to maternity leave or pregnancy.”

ILO Convention No. 183 provides 14 weeks of paid maternity leave. It prevents the exposure of a pregnant woman or nursing mother to work that can be harmful to her health and that of her baby. The Convention also provides for protection from discrimination based on maternity and termination of employment of a woman during pregnancy or on maternity leave.

Ratifying considerations


In its report “Maternity and Paternity at Work: Law and practice across the world” published in May 2014, the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch said around 830 million women do not have adequate maternity protection. Almost 80 per cent of these workers are in Africa and Asia. As of now Mali, Morocco, Benin and Burkina Faso are the only African countries that have ratified ILO Convention No. 183 (C183).

Rwanda has so far ratified 28 international labour Conventions and according to Paul Ruzindana, the Legal Advisor at the Ministry of Public Services and Labor, the process of ratifying Conventions is based on the country’s ability to implement them.

“We have to consider whether we have infrastructures and means that will allow us to implement a Convention. It would not be right to ratify a Convention and not implement it,” says Ruzindana. Debates are now underway in Rwanda to look into ways of establishing a maternity fund that for trade unions and women would be a helpful alternative.

The ILO is assisting the Rwandan government in its efforts to establish a maternity fund and therefore ensure that adequate maternity leave cash benefits are provided through social insurance for at least the current full 12 or 14 weeks, in line with C183. This would replace the current employer liability system.

“This is essential to protect women against discrimination and allow them to fully enjoy their maternity leave, which is key for maternal and child health and families' income security,” says Laura Addati, Maternity Protection and Work-family Specialist from the ILO’s Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch.

Guebray Berhane, the Senior Communication and Public Information Officer at the ILO Regional Office for Africa, says Convention No. 183 is demanding and rewarding as well. “What the Convention is saying is that there is a need for a shared understanding for a negotiation and a discussion.”

“This is why we believe maternity protection will be more of an investment rather than a cost not only for the employers, not only for the workers, not only for the government itself but for the whole country,” says the Addis Ababa based ILO Senior Officer.


This article was awarded the "Media for Labour Rights in Rwanda" Prize by the International Training Centre of the ILO (ITC-ILO), which is co-funded by the European Union.