The tiny nation of Lesotho is one of the few countries in the world, including the United States, and one of just two in Africa, without mandated paid leave for new mothers. International watchdogs and activists say maternity leave is often poorly enforced, especially since so many African women work in the informal sector.
When Makhopotsohad Letsie had her youngest child, she took a three-month break from her job as a riveter to care for her baby boy.
Her employer, a large factory in Lesotho’s capital, paid her during that time. She got a grand total of just more than $23.
It was not enough to meet her needs, she says, but she had no choice.
That amount was not even a quarter of her monthly salary. But she was grateful, she says, because she lives in one of the few countries that does not mandate maternity benefits.
Parliament Member and All Basotho Congress spokesman Moeketsi Majoro says paid leave is not a kindness, it is a necessity. He says his party wants to implement a three-month maternity leave policy.
“We want everybody to participate, and participate fully in the economy and without the insecurity or the difficult choices of having to raise the future of Lesotho and having to go to work for a minimum wage," said Majoro. "It is, in fact, an empowerment process that we need to put in place, as a policy.”
The International Labor Organization recommends maternity leave of at least 18 weeks. But in a survey, the organization found no African government offers that to all mothers, South Africa leads with its law mandating 17 weeks.
Other African nations are trying to expand their policies. Rwanda last year expanded benefits to 12 weeks. Nigeria’s government recently expanded leave for civil servants to six paid months, but the private sector is only required to give three months.
In Kenya, employers have strongly objected to a recent proposal to offer at least six months leave, the last three unpaid and voluntary. They say they can not afford such a plan.
The ILO estimates a universal maternity cash benefit would cost low- and lower-middle income countries less than 0.5 percent of their economy. But the organization acknowledges, cash-strapped countries, like Lesotho, struggle in the face of more urgent needs.
Professor Anita Bosch, who researches gender and workplace issues at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, says societies cannot afford to deny newborns the bonding and formative experiences that will set them up for life.
But she says few women in Africa benefit from maternity leave, because these laws only apply to the formal sector. The ILO estimates worldwide less than a third of women hold formal employment.
“In the informal sector, people are so desperate for work, remember our unemployment levels are at extreme levels. People are just desperate to have a job and to hang on to a job. And so for that, they will do whatever, and that makes them highly exploitable,” said Bosch.
In most African nations, the law puts the burden on employers to pay maternity benefits. For mothers without jobs, there is often little help from the state.
Letsie says that worries her. Her 18-year-old daughter just married and like a quarter of Lesotho’s population can not find a job. Letsie is the breadwinner for her extended family and says she desperately needs help. She wonders what they will do when her first grandchild comes along?