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CommentaryThe road to reforming Ethiopia’s policies on maternity and paternity leave

The road to reforming Ethiopia’s policies on maternity and paternity leave

When it comes to balancing work and family life, women often find themselves shouldering the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities. Unfortunately, inadequate and outdated maternity and paternity leave policies exacerbate this imbalance, hindering women from reaching their full potential and making meaningful contributions to their economies. Improving paid leave policies for mothers and fathers continues to pose difficulties, with many countries struggling to meet the needs of working parents.

Even though paid maternity leave is available in almost every country, according to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law project, only 62 percent ensure the recommended minimum duration of 14 weeks. Furthermore, only 60 percent of economies provide paid paternity leave, and the median length globally is just one week.

In Ethiopia, the government has recently made strides in improving leave policies for parents. In 2019, it increased the duration of paid maternity leave from 90 to 120 days and, for the first time in Ethiopian history, provided three days of paid paternity leave for private sector workers.

The recently published DECIG brief, The Road to Reforming Ethiopia’s Policies on Maternity and Paternity Leave, explores the factors that led to this reform and the challenges faced by sharing findings from interviews that WBL conducted with representatives of government, civil society, and workers’ rights and employers’ associations. These insights can provide valuable guidance for other countries seeking to improve their own leave policies to enhance social and economic outcomes not only for women, but for the economy as a whole.

Ethiopia’s economic growth, coupled with demands from employees and employers, government efforts to reduce poverty and attract investments, and a political transition, set the stage for comprehensive legal reform. With a growing population and a rapidly growing economy due to foreign investment and an increase in productivity, Ethiopia experienced a transformation in its labor force, prompting stakeholders’ interest in pursuing labor law reform.  

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Developing the new Labor Proclamation involved tripartite negotiations among employers, employees, and the government. The process spanned several years, with the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) playing a significant role in proposing an initial draft that included new leave policies for parents.

Several factors played a critical role in shaping the labor reform, such as the openness of the Ethiopia Employers’ Federation for negotiations, CETU’s persistence during negotiations, and government readiness to embark on changes to the legal landscape with the goal of creating an enabling environment for investments, poverty reduction, and industry growth.

Yet legal reform that improves leave policies for parents alone is not enough to improve women’s economic prospects after having children, and several challenges still need to be addressed:

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted communication efforts about the new labor law, resulting in insufficient public awareness.

Data on employer compliance with the leave policies are not readily available, and the government does not collect data on employee uptake of maternity and paternity leave. Furthermore, lack of employee awareness, fear of retaliation, and limited trade union representation contribute to the low reporting of rights violations.

Entrenched gender norms and stereotypes regarding caregiving and breadwinning perpetuate gender inequalities in Ethiopia, as in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and threaten the law’s implementation.

The cost of maternity benefits is currently borne by employers. Employer coverage of maternity benefits can negatively affect women’s career prospects in the formal sector. When governments fully fund maternity leave, the positive relationship between maternity leave and women’s employment is stronger than when employers do so.

However, legal reform can still be a powerful catalyst for change. Despite the above challenges, Ethiopia’s 2019 labor law reform is a significant step forward in supporting working parents in the private sector and can serve as an example for other countries.

(Viktoria Khaitina is an analyst at the Women, Business and the Law project. Olena Mykhalchenko is a consultant for Women, Business and the Law at the World Bank.)

Contributed by Viktoria Khaitina  & Olena Mykhalchenko

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