How the pregnancy penalty supercharges global inequality

Anthony Kamande Gender, Rights, Women's Economic Empowerment

In a blog for International Women’s Day, new parent Anthony Kamande reflects on the heavy cost his partner and family have paid for the simple act of having a baby. The world, and especially its poorer countries, needs a pregnancy rights revolution, he says, and international funders such as the IMF must play their part.

New parents at a maternity check-up in Mozambique, featured on the cover of the Oxfam/Water Aid report “In the Public Interest: Health, education and water and sanitation for all” (picture: Kate Raworth/Oxfam)

In one of the proudest moments of our lives, my wife and I became parents on Valentine’s Day. But for us, as for millions of others having babies across the globe, that joy has come with a heavy economic cost. When my wife’s employer in Kenya found out about her pregnancy, just eight weeks into it, she lost her job.

To add insult to injury, even the two days of prenatal clinics she attended while still in employment, went unpaid even though her boss had given her permission to attend the hospital. Meanwhile, a pregnant friend of hers is now being fired because her boss “does not want something to happen to her in the workplace”. She now does not know what to do.

‘Debt cancellation for poorer countries would make a huge difference to upholding and supporting rights in pregnancy across the globe’

The deeply troubling experiences of my wife and her friend are just two of millions across the world, as pregnant workers are punished, shamed and impoverished. Headlines are full of such cases, from Kenya to the UK to China. Too many pregnant workers lose their livelihoods and fall into financial, health and mental problems, which also affect their unborn and newborn, causing and perpetuating inequality.

Maximising profits – while taking away rights

Why do employers across the globe target and discriminate against pregnant workers? Research suggests gendered stereotypes and unjustified views about the competence of these workers are a big problem. This study suggests “motherhood, is viewed as a status characteristic that conditions participants to rate working mothers’ job competence and commitment more negatively than those of nonmothers” while this paper points to how they are seen as transgressing “sacred” norms about the ideal worker.

There also seems to be false ideas about what equity, which should mean meeting everyone’s different needs to give everyone a fair chance, really means. My wife was told by her boss  that “allowing pregnancy leave [for women] creates an inequality between men and women”.

Employers see pregnant workers as uncommitted and an obstacle to the goals of maximising profits for their wealthy owners and executives. They are reluctant to pay the costs associated with a just workplace: paying for time to attend prenatal clinics and particularly for paid parental leave to look after newborns and recover.

The heaviest pregnancy burden falls on the poorest 

The heaviest burden of pregnancy discrimination falls on  women living in poverty, the low paid and those working in informal work and other precarious employment. According to the latest International Labour Organization (ILO) data, over half of women (55%) work in the informal sector with minimal rights and protections. In poorer countries such as Kenya, a large portion of women are in precarious employment such as domestic work, and so at the mercy of employer. Pregnancy discrimination in the workplace for such informal workers is very high. 

Even where protections legally exist, discrimination is rampant

As our Commitment to Reducing Inequality index shows, protection of women and rights to paid parental leave vary enormously from country to country. Disappointingly four countries (Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and the United States) continue to deny parents paid leave and 58 countries still fall short of the ILO convention of a minimum of 18 weeks of maternity leave.  More positively, paternity and/or parental leave has been introduced or increased in 17 countries and six countries have introduced or increased maternity leave.

Many countries do prohibit the dismissal of pregnant workers and have laws on paid maternal leave. But the latest data from the World Bank’s Women, Business and Law shows that in 41 countries, home to a third of the global population, the dismissal of pregnant workers is not prohibited.

But having laws and policies is one thing: implementing and enforcing them is quite another. The UK, for instance, has progressive laws and policies to protect pregnant workers. However, a 2015 report by its Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed that about 54,000 women still face job loss due to pregnancy each year, with activist organisations such as “Pregnant Then Screwed” fighting to tackle the problem. In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity received 30,000 cases related to pregnancy discrimination for the ten years between 2013 and 2022.

Government must act on leave, benefits and public services

So how can countries across the globe tackle this stark discrimination?  An obvious starting point is universal parental leave and a prohibition on firing pregnant workers. The ILO recommends countries should provide at least 18 weeks of fully paid maternal leave and adequate paid paternal leave. Role models in this area include Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, which provides two parents with a fully paid total of 480 days’ parental leave, distributed as you choose between them.

Organisations and individuals denying workers such parental leave right should face stiff penalties. Corporations must be compelled to prioritise human life over profits.

A second area of action needed is public investment in benefits and universal public services. Governments should use the tools of fiscal policy to protect pregnant workers, and indeed those not in employment. That means publicly funded and universal maternal benefits, including an income allowance for lactating mothers. That is of course in addition to publicly funded quality healthcare and other essential public infrastructure such as clean water and the fair distribution of domestic work.

Will the IMF back economic justice for pregnant workers?

All of this requires funding and the corresponding revenue to governments. That means taxing the rich and their corporations to improve the financial and health wellbeing of parents, newborns and families and to tackle inequality.

Action is particularly needed in poorer countries as they grapple with low tax revenue and bankrupting levels of public debt. Poorer countries will need more resources to provide these progressive benefits in the face of competing needs. This does not let their governments off the hook for their own policy choices – clearly they should make better choices with their available resources – but delivering in this area also, crucially, means addressing debt cancellation, which would make a huge difference to upholding and supporting rights in pregnancy across the globe.

Rich countries and the IMF must do the right thing in supporting and fast-tracking debt cancellation. Instead of advocating for austerity and budget cuts, the IMF should support spending on essential public services such as maternal benefits, social protection and free quality public healthcare that will benefit pregnant women.

The simple act of having a baby should not lead to being punished impoverished or fired from your job. Governments, international institutions and employers all need to pay their part in finally ending this outrageous global injustice.

Author

Anthony Kamande

Anthony Kamande is inequality research coordinator at Oxfam International

This blog is the first in a series of posts to mark International Women’s Day. Follow us on Twitter/X and LinkedIn to see the latest content around #IWD24