The debate about maternity leave in South Africa, and how much paid time off work a new mother should be granted by her employer, has been opened up again after comments from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The organisation states that mothers should breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life.
Ndivhuwo Manyonga, deputy CEO at Aon Hewitt South Africa, says that the options for maternity leave can vary hugely in South Africa. “Some companies offer three months’ paid or partially-paid maternity leave, while other organisations may offer more. Others again may give new mothers the time off work but won’t pay them because legislation doesn’t require them to pay her.”
According to the Department of Labour, pregnant workers are entitled to at least four consecutive months of maternity leave. Workers may also take maternity leave one month before their due date, or earlier or later as agreed or required for health reasons.
Manyonga continues: “The South African situation is such that in most instances, new mothers come back to work sooner than six months after the baby is born and then struggle with the issue of breastfeeding for a number of reasons, making the WHO’s recommendations highly unrealistic from their personal perspectives.”
This, says Manyonga, is in direct contrast to the situation in many Scandinavian countries where, by law, new mothers are offered a guaranteed six months’ maternity leave on full pay.
In contrast with the stance taken by the WHO, medical researchers from two British universities have also argued earlier this year that the idea of exclusive breastfeeding for six months is unrealistic and puts undue pressure on many new mothers (the University of Aberdeen and the University of Stirling, in the journal BMJ Open).
Benefits that South African companies give expectant and new mothers. Taken from theEmergence Growth 2011 benefits survey (for South Africa).
Companies should be flexible with new mothers
Manyonga says that if more companies are encouraged to offer a flexible return-to-work programme to new mothers, together with hygienic facilities and time-out arrangements that allow new mothers to express and then store their breast-milk while at work, more choices will at least be opened up to the new mother.
“In the end, whether or not to attempt to breastfeed remains a personal choice for any new mother, as is the choice to breastfeed exclusively for six months or even less. A longer paid maternity leave time, together with increased support of a new mother returning to work, could go a long way towards assisting new mothers to make personal choices that are best for the physical and mental health of both their babies and themselves,” concludes Manyonga.