Maternity leave is not a favor
The pending passage of an expanded maternity leave law is certainly cause for celebration. And women are of course at the forefront of the merrymaking. But if men, including the President whose signature on the bill will turn it into law, think “they” are doing women a favor, then they’ve got another think coming.
Maternity leave is not a luxury for women — nor for men who could take advantage of a provision for paternity leave. Yes, it is necessary (and only fair) for a woman who has undergone nine months of pregnancy and the rigors of childbirth to rest awhile and recover from the physical and emotional hardships she has endured. (Postpartum depression is a scientific fact, not a fantasy or indulgence.)
More important, maternity leave is necessary and life-saving for both mother and child. Like a field left to lie fallow between harvest and planting, a woman’s body needs time to rest and recover. More important, babies need their mothers’ time, attention and care in the first early days of their lives. For breastfeeding mothers, the days immediately following childbirth are also crucial for “latching on,” when infant and mother establish the connection and the routine necessary for successful breastfeeding. Even bottle-fed babies need to establish a bond with their primary caregivers, the better to ensure long-term health.
Unicef, the United Nations’ primary agency for children’s welfare, reminds everyone that “women may get pregnant, miscarry, give birth, lactate and breastfeed. All these take their toll on women’s health, making them more susceptible to illnesses in the long run. Women need to slow down, space births, and eat well.”
But what if “nanay” is not at optimum health? Well, says Unicef, “malnourished pregnant women give birth to underweight infants. Mothers who are iodine-deficient suffer frequent miscarriages, still births, and early infant deaths. Babies who survive will most likely be born deformed and mentally challenged.”
Unhealthy women who become pregnant will most likely give birth to and raise unhealthy babies. Unhealthy women will produce an unhealthy nation.
All things considered, the pending expanded maternity leave law may in fact be coming only at the tail end of an entire protocol of care necessary to ensure a healthy delivery and successful child rearing.
A graphic explanation of “a woman’s road to maternal death” is a chilling reminder of the many barriers to maternal survival. It begins with a “girl child,” whose health in childhood—eating enough food, enjoying playtime and fresh air, getting an education—determines her health status in adolescence. A teenage girl would then have to maneuver through several “dangerous” situations—ignorance of her reproductive health and rights, early sex or sexual violence, overwork and disease—to make it to adulthood.
And once she gets pregnant, a woman needs good healthcare, regular monitoring, a nutritious diet capped by safe assisted childbirth to survive and give birth to a healthy baby. If at any point on this road the girl-woman stumbles or falls, she will most likely end up a statistic in the Philippines’ still-too-high child and maternal death ratio.
More than just giving women time to rest, and babies time to thrive, the expanded maternity leave bill also sends a message to all of government and society regarding where our priorities as a people and as policymakers and implementers should lie. Why is it that after almost all countries have made admirable strides in reducing their child and maternal mortality rates, the Philippines has instead slipped and slid on this important metric? How could it have continued to allow 11 women to die each day even as they sought to give life?
Filipinos take pride in their matriarchal society, routinely thumping their chests and proclaiming their devotion to mothers—the divine Queen of Heaven as well as the down-to-earth queen of one’s home. But even as we swear fealty to our mothers, as a nation we seem to take other mothers for granted, failing them in terms of funds and state support for their health and welfare. The expanded maternity leave bill goes some way in addressing this systemic imbalance, and deserves to be signed into law by the President pronto. Healthy mothers ensure a healthy future for the nation.
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