Why Pakistani women need more employers like Telenor

One shoe bomber shows up and we all now take our shoes off on every international airport, but women have been giving birth since antiquity and their exit out of the job market did not bring about any change across the corporate world. Or in pockets of isolation either. Until now. Telenor, said to be one of Pakistan’s lead firms when it comes to Human Resource focused policies, has adopted a 6 month paid maternity leave policy. This cannot be celebrated enough.

Now perhaps these women don’t need to sit back on their sore post-birth stitches once they get back to work after 10 days of giving birth like I did. I know women who had to mop the water that broke at the office after they returned to work. In their quest to use as little as possible of their one month leave most women, even in leading organizations, stay on at work right until the point they practically pop.

It is utterly tragic that the one institution of motherhood that breaths life miraculously into another being should be treated in such a shoddy way by corporates. Exploitative in nature, these organizations put the onus on women to prove that they are as far from the notion of procreation as they can be – they are hired less, they are promoted less and they are certainly appreciated a lot less as they waddle across cubicles as if it is a foreign object they carry in their womb born out of an act you’d rather unthink in the office.

Telenor in its new policy led by Telenor Group has set the bar high. Mothers can return to work without the urgency to prove that they are not hormone-crazed and can type up a memo or lead a meeting. They can also not been torn between tending to the new life they made and having a career – both distinctly separate and necessary aspect of being both a woman and a two-legged social animal with an intelligence quotient.

The only other company that I know comes to a close second is Pakistan Tobacco Company (PTC) that has a 3 month paid leave policy with an additional three month unpaid leave option. The company also understands that being a mother does not end with cutting the umbilical cord – that mothers need to also tend to their kids afterwards. In Pakistan’s case almost always without any male family member’s help. So PTC has subsidized day care facilities at the premises. The company is extremely gracious with work-from-home days in the event a mother needs to sooth an ailing ear infection of a child or catch up on sleep debt of a colic-prone baby.

As for the rest of the professional world, the less said about them the better. By far the biggest tragedy of our country is the exclusion women face when it comes to financial independence and control. Instead of working around the fact that women need flexibility in their employment terms during their child-bearing years, Pakistani organizations actually prefer to opt out of having to deal with them entirely. For those tough cookies that enter the market and find a way to stick through, they find that they are constantly on the defensive. They over perform, over compensate and over deliver to stay in the game, at the end someone without a uterus and a breastfeeding job to do gets promoted despite women’s best efforts, often on double the pay.

In a world where companies like Telenor and PTC lead the employment policies we will have a world that Facebook COO and author of Lean In Sheryl Sandberg described: “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”  The more bravo for them the better. Boos for the abattoirs of new mother’s professional souls.

The problem is that these companies can be counted on one’s right foot’s toes. The other problem is that a lot of the Pakistani sole proprietorships or seth companies feel no pressure to have laws at par with international labour standards. Nor do they feel any pressure to follow any laws because of the irreverence towards them generally and also because historically no company has been punished by the courts for non-conformance of maternity leaves.

Article 37(e) of the constitution of Pakistan asks for maternity benefits and specifically The Maternity Benefit Ordinance, 1958 stipulates that after four months employment an employee may have up to six weeks prenatal/postnatal leave. It also says that she will draw a salary based on her last pay. Sadly, the reality is we would have fill up the Grand Canyon if we start taking complaints of women who were dismissed for taking maternity leave. The manufacturing and industry sectors are worse off.

In rural East Africa, where I grew up, women would be back in the field soon after birth, baby on the back with a sickle, cutting corn in the fields because they needed to feed the family. No one should be allowed to be that brave. We are all not too far from that perpetual state of women in Pakistan.





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