NAIROBI - Africa's population is growing and the United Nations estimates 40 percent of the world's population will live in Africa by 2050.

African economies are also growing, along with a growth in the work force. But in some countries, the social and economic forces collide on workplace issues like parental leave.

While some countries are moving to extend leave, others are having a hard time enforcing the laws they already have.

As one of Africa’s most vibrant economies, Kenya boasts an impressive body of labor legislation.  

Parental leave laws

Many of these laws are quite good, said Ernest Nadome, who works for the Central Organization of Trade Unions. He said Kenya’s laws on parental leave, which date back to 2007, should make it easier for women to balance the needs of work and family.

“The lady employee is entitled to three months maternity leave, and on top of that the lady employee also will not forfeit the normal annual leave that other male employees enjoy. And at the same time when you’re on maternity leave, you are entitled to your full benefits,” said Nadome.

But many Kenyan women say it does not always work out that way.

Esther Njau gave birth to her daughter Marie five months ago. When she got pregnant, she discovered her small company only offered two months of maternity leave, which she said is not uncommon. Two months was not enough for her, so she felt she had no choice but to quit.

“Most of the private enterprises in Kenya have a problem with maternity leave. Once you are working in a private enterprise, the rules are made by the owner of the company because he’s the director. If he says it’s two months and you’re not comfortable with it, what do you do? You just quit,” said Njau.

Not only do most employers not provide the full three months the law requires, said Njau, but very few will actually pay a woman’s salary when she is on leave.

And many of Njau’s friends have had a harder time than she has. Some have been replaced when they went on maternity leave, while others have simply been fired.

This poses a serious dilemma to working women who want children, said Njau.

“Should I? Should I not? You’re so confused. You’re earning well, you’re living well, but the moment you get pregnant, you’re fired or you’re replaced. So that’s something that can keep you from getting more kids,” she said.

Nadome said that in Kenya, unionized workers are usually more successful in fighting for their right to parental leave. But most Kenyans are not unionized, and many in the informal sector work without any contracts at all.

Parenting at work issue

Throughout Africa, countries have begun to grapple with issues of parenting at work. According to a 2010 report by the International Labor Organization, 82 percent of the 50 African countries studied now provide at least 12 weeks of maternity leave.

Many had recently increased it, and South Africa is now under pressure to increase it even more.

Ultimately, said Nadome, denying parental leave can have far-reaching social consequences.

“It has increased poverty amongst women. Poverty amongst women is high. I would imagine that if the employers were adhering to the labor laws and making sure they extend the necessary benefits to these ladies, it will go a long way in uplifting their living standards,” said Nadome.

Still, Njau thinks Kenyan women are better off now than they were a generation ago. And with more and more discussion around the issue, there are hopes Africa’s labor laws will eventually benefit everyone.