Abu Dhabi, UAE: Mothers have renewed calls for longer maternity leave and more flexible working options to enable them to better balance child care and careers.
Fully paid maternity leave is 60 days for government employees and 45 days in the private sector for women who have worked at their company for more than one year.
A mother may extend leave to 100 days, unpaid, if she has an illness that has resulted from pregnancy or delivery.
But some mothers feel they have no option but to quit their jobs after giving birth, and other expatriate mothers find working is not an option.
Maria Settembri, 36, a Uruguayan expatriate in Dubai whose son arrived at just 23 weeks and spent four months in hospital, understands the difficulties working mothers face when their newborns are in hospital for a long time.
“I see the struggle,” she said.
“They don’t even take the maternity leave,” Ms Settembri said. “They just go back to work and they have to deal with the stress of working plus having their babies at the hospital and visiting them.”
Ms Settembri, a mother of two, had her first child in Switzerland, where she had six months’ maternity leave. After the birth of her second child she started a support group for parents whose children are born prematurely.
She believes maternity leave should be longer and that employers should be more accommodating, with greater opportunity for working flexible hours or even part-time.
“From what I hear … there’s no flexibility, so you cannot talk to your employer and tell them about your situation and have special treatment.”
A life coach who bases her opinion on what she hears from other mothers, she believes many women have a lot to offer but give up on their careers when they follow their husbands to the UAE.
“They are here, they have a nanny at home, so they would like to do something – the problem is that they don’t want to do something for nine hours a day.”
Dr Alaa Hassan Ali Swaify, head of the neonatal intensive care unit at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said it was important for a mother to be with her baby for the first two months – “the most critical time”.
This is especially true for premature babies who are discharged from the unit. “Sometimes they are discharged home on medication, on oxygen … some are handicapped and need the mother’s care,” Dr Swaify said.
He believes existing maternity leave is adequate for mothers of full-term babies but should be longer for those with babies born at less than 30 weeks.
“If the baby has special needs and special problems, I think the mother will find difficulty in caring for the baby if they are working,” he said.
Eman, 30, an Egyptian expatriate in Abu Dhabi who works in a bank and is expecting her first child, said: “It’s not long enough. The baby is still so young to go to nursery. I’m Egyptian, an expat, my family lives in Egypt and there’s nobody here to leave my child with.”
Nela Lukic, editor of ExpatWoman, an English website for women in the UAE, said: “The women on ExpatWoman often feel that the 45 days’ maternity leave is not enough for them to recover from the birth and bond with the child.
“We’ve had ladies who were adamant they were going to go back to work after 45 days and then have realised that they simply can’t face leaving their newborn.”
The Dubai Women Establishment, the statutory Dubai government body that aims to encourage the participation of Emirati women in the workforce and society, prepared a draft policy on maternity leave and breastfeeding in 2009.
It studied the length of maternity leave in 39 countries and only eight provided less leave than the UAE.
The issue was raised last month at the FNC, when member Ali Al Nuaimi (Ajman) argued that 60 days’ maternity leave was inadequate.
© The National