Social security

Advocating for universal maternity coverage for Vietnamese women

Viet Nam provides generous maternity benefits, yet for many women they remain out of reach. Enhancing access would benefit women, families, businesses and the nation alike.

Article | Hanoi, Viet Nam | 17 May 2023
Hương arranging ice cream pints in a frozen storage room, Viet Nam. © Nguyen Hai Dat/ILO
THANH HOA CITY, Viet Nam (ILO News) - It’s 6.30 a.m. and minus 20° Celsius. Already hard at work, 36-year-old Huong is arranging ice cream pints into foam boxes in a frozen storage room.

Working with her husband in a small business to supply wholesale ice cream to retail stores across Thanh Hoa city, some 150 kilometers south of Hanoi, Huong spends an average of two hours every day in the freezing room. Just one month after welcoming her first child in 2012, Huong was back to her daily routine in the icy storage room, much to the concern of her mother. It’s traditional Vietnamese belief that women should avoid exposure to the cold during the postpartum period.

“She told me to rest more. [If I didn’t take good postpartum care and keep working like this], my health would suffer later when I am older”, Huong shared.

While Huong knew that going back to work would affect her health, she had no other choice.

"Back then, I had a cousin who worked in a garment factory and gave birth to a child. She got paid maternity leave. But for me, taking such leave would mean my son would go hungry.” Health problems began soon after for Huong.

Sinus issues, allergies a continuous runny nose, all of which Huong believes could be the result of the daily confinement in the cold. Worse still, she suffered a total of five miscarriages before being able to finally give birth to her second child following costly treatment.

Huong is just one amongst hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women who give birth each year but who are not entitled to maternity benefits.

In Viet Nam, maternity benefits fall under the Social Insurance Law, allowing female workers to take six months leave at full pay. However, although Viet Nam’s maternity benefits are considered to be some of the most generous in the region in terms of both duration and benefit level, the majority of women cannot access it.

The main reason is that maternity benefits only apply to those participating in the compulsory social insurance scheme, meaning those working in the recognized labour force – the formal economy. Huong and others like her either in the informal economy or not in the labour force remain uninsured. In 2019, ILO estimated that only 30 per cent of all women in the labour force participated in the compulsory scheme and were covered by maternity benefits.

The Social Protection & Public Finance Management (SP&PFM) project is enabling the ILO and the Viet Nam Women's Union, together with stakeholders, to advocate for the adoption of a multitiered maternity benefit which would make maternity protection a right for all women in Viet Nam, regardless of their employment status.

Studies have shown that ensuring universal maternity benefits comes at a minimal impact to a country’s GDP. In Viet Nam, the cost of providing maternity benefits for uninsured women was estimated at less than 0.04 per cent of GDP in 2020, declining to 0.02 per cent of GDP in 20302.

With a universal maternity benefit system in place, mothers like Huong will have the support they need to care for themselves and for their babies before returning to work. Such employment stability and income security are vital for personal well-being and career development and will also contribute to the socio-economic development of Viet Nam.