Lebanese Mothers: Missing Their Babies

Lebanon currently has one of the shortest maternity leave periods in the world, offering only 49 days off work for new mothers. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar / Al-Akhbar)

Lebanon currently has one of the shortest maternity leave periods in the world, offering only 49 days off work for new mothers. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar / Al-Akhbar)

An article on a proposed amendment to the Lebanese maternity leave legislation, published in Al-Akhbar English in September 2012.

A draft law addressing maternity leave is set to be presented in the upcoming fall Parliamentary session, aiming to lengthen time off work for new mothers. However, mothers, doctors and activists are saying it’s still not enough.

Lebanon currently has one of the shortest maternity leave periods in the world, offering only 49 days off work for new mothers. This embarrassing record is beaten only by Bahrain and the UAE, who both allow 45 days of recuperation after childbirth. A current draft law to increase the maternity leave to ten weeks is set to be presented in front of the Parliament in the upcoming months. However, it still falls short of the minimum 14 weeks recommended by the International Labor Organization.

The proposal, presented by MPs Gilberte Zwein of the Free Patriotic Movement and Michel Moussa of the Amal Movement Parliamentary Bloc, has already been approved by the Women and Children Committee, the Public Health, Labor and Social Affairs Committee and the Justice and Administration Commission. The proposal was also given the green light by Prime Minister Najib Mikati in April. For Moussa, the draft law represents “an acceptable step forward for both mothers and employers.”

But what might seem an acceptable compromise for politicians is far from sufficient for those directly affected by the law. For Jinane Khashouf, a 31-year-old human resources consultant and creator of a blog entitled Lebanese Working Moms, it was a struggle to conciliate work with the responsibility of caring for a newborn.

Khashouf said she was “lucky” that her now five-year old daughter was born in the summer while she was working as a teacher, hence giving her two and a half months off. However, she only had the seven-week long maternity leave after the birth of her son two years ago.

“It was not enough,” she said. “You want to go back to your daily life, but you are not ready: you are still breastfeeding, the baby is awake most of the time, but the show must go on.” Khashouf added that if it hadn’t been for her mother being able to take care of her youngest child while she was in the office, she would simply have chosen not to have a second child.

The pressure of balancing a career with motherhood is heightened by the fear of many women that they will be replaced at work, and this despite the existing law which prohibits the firing or women who are pregnant or on maternity leaves. “The law might say many things, but it is not always respected,” Khashouf said, noting that she knows of several women who were unlawfully dismissed from their jobs during or right after their pregnancy.

While hailing the draft proposal as progress, obstetrician Souha Nasreddine emphasized the need to aim higher, citing the negative health concerns a short maternity leave might entail.

“Having time off work to care for your newborn is not a benefit, it’s a need,” she stressed. She recommended a minimum of three months off, while noting that it is highly preferable for mothers to breastfeed until the age of six months. Unfortunately, working hours and a persistent taboo concerning breast pumps at work has meant that many mothers have had to stop breastfeeding their children much earlier than they would have liked.

According to Nasreddine, forcing mothers to get back to work so quickly also has a psychological effect on the newborn child. “The bonding during the first six months of a baby’s life is important for personality building,” she said, estimating that children separated too early from their mothers have a tendency to be more agitated, anxious and insecure.

The slow pace of reform also has some activists worried that Lebanon will continue to lag behind on international rights standards for decades. The former president of the League for Lebanese Women’s Rights, Linda Matar, recalled the last time the maternity leave law was updated twelve years ago, when private sector employees were granted nine extra days, finally on par with their public sector counterparts’ 49 days off. “It made no sense,” Matar said, referring to the old status quo. “Childbirth is the same, regardless of your place of employment.”

Additionally, while employers could previously legally fire women before their fifth month of pregnancy, women have been fully protected from termination of employment during the entire duration of their pregnancy and subsequent time off since 2000 – at least, according to the law.

Although they recognize the limitations of the current draft law, those who contributed to it highlighted the fact that this proposal represents the best possible outcome of negotiations between the feminist movement and economic actors. Rita Chemaly, a blogger and activist who also works at the National Commission for Lebanese Women, noted that while the commission initially hoped for a 12-week maternity leave, there was resistance from employers against extending the leave so dramatically.

However, Chemaly said she was hopeful. “I feel pretty confident that this law will pass,” she said. “This is not a polarizing subject. It transcends communitarianism and will benefit all women.” The fact that the proposal has already been approved by three parliamentary commissions strengthened her belief.

While Moussa shared Chemaly’s optimism about the proposal’s potential to pass, he did have a word of caution. “There is a chance that the current political tensions could negatively affect the outcome of the vote,” he noted. “We will have to see how the discussions go.”

For Matar, the relegation of this law to the backburner wouldn’t be anything new. She has been advocating for around sixty years trying to improve conditions for women in the country, and said that time and time again, progress is stifled by political paralysis.

“We are always told ‘now is not the time,’ whether we are at peace or at war,” she said. “Well, if not now, when? Women’s issues are always forgotten because they are not supported by the government.”

But more importantly than legal change, many agreed that Lebanon needs a drastic change in mentality regarding its perception of working mothers. For many women, being a stay-at-home mom is no longer an option the way it was a generation or two ago.

“Many women work because they have to work – otherwise they would simply switch to part-time jobs,” Khashouf said. “Quitting your job also means losing a huge part of your identity. We need to find options that work for everyone.”

Zeina Ibrahim, an office manager, agreed. “Working mothers have a lot of pressure in our society,” she said. “There is that expectation that you should give up your job, and that you are a bad mother if you don’t.”

Ibrahim changed jobs after giving birth to her son because of the long hours at her previous place of work, which made it impossible for her to be there for her child. Yet, she never considered giving up working altogether, knowing it would be very hard to find work again.

Another factor often cited as making life more difficult for working mothers is the lack of involvement of fathers in day-to-day childcare. For Chemaly, a paternity leave would be a great step for families to bond, “but there must be a change of mentality. People need to stop thinking it is a shame for a man to change a diaper before we can even think of passing a law.”

Nasreddine summarized the imperative to keep aiming higher and not relegate mothers’ rights as “simply” a women’s issue: “Working mothers need real support, and it’s not only for them, it’s for the whole society. Everybody needs to remember that they are not doing this simply for their own benefit; they are raising the country’s next generation.”

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