When The Laws Fight Against Our Bodies

Mary Ero
Posted January 19, 2017 from Nigeria

In 2009, while 6 months pregnant, I was fired from my job in a multi-national media house. The bone of contention was maternity leave and, by extension, my pregnancy.

The week before I was fired, my supervisor who was based in South Africa, had asked why I was attending antenatal (prenatal to Americans) clinic the whole day, on Tuesdays. He said his sister had only attended for a few hours when she was pregnant and came right back to work. I was then over 6 months gone. I explained to him that it was a different system in Nigeria. Women had the whole day off for antenatal classes. What I could not explain to him was that it was especially more difficult because I was attending clinic in the (cheaper) public hospital that had scores of women waiting all day to see just one doctor. Or that I also had to add receiving treatment for HIV, to my clinic day attendance, in another private facility. It was not their concern nor did it matter to them.

What followed was an email discussion about my maternity leave, how long it was supposed to be and when it would be due. I was then informed that should I choose to take my maternity leave it would be unpaid. This baffled and worried me equally. I was confused as to whether I was supposed to give birth in the office, or maybe take just one day off to give birth and come back to work the next. (Of course, that would not have been possible.)

Luckily for me, this happened close to December and in time for the renegotiation and renewal of my employment contract, so I decided that I would bring the matter up again at that time. Unfortunately that was not to be. My supervisor offered to renegotiate my contract with HR on my behalf. I thought that was a good idea as they were both in South Africa and I was in Nigeria. They could have a face-to-face discussion. He asked me via email, what the financial terms were first of all. I told him I wanted a 10% increase in salary based on the Vice President’s appraisal of my performance and some time off. He came back to me almost immediately and asked if it would be a deal breaker if HR offered the same old salary, and the same terms on the employment contract. Thinking he was just trying to be sure of what I wanted before he went into negotiation, I said, yes it would as I really needed the time off. The next thing he wrote shook me to my roots. “It was nice working with you”, it read. I was stunned. And confused.

It was later I realised that I had been set up. There was no renegotiation, they just wanted a pregnant woman out.

In Nigeria, by law,all women are entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave, during which period they must receive, at minimum, 50% of their regular wages. In addition, the labor laws require employers to provide women workers with at least one hour each day to nurse their children. However, labor laws are not enforced in privately owned enterprises, and in some cases pregnant women are compelled to resign and reapply after confinement. Employers in the private sector are permitted to formulate their own policies and entitlements with respect to maternity benefits. A woman is on the average entitled to 84 days away from work, part of which is her annual leave with or without full pay as the employer may wish. In other words, she is not entitled to both annual and maternity leave within the same year. If 30 days is her usual annual leave, it means the woman would be entitled maternity leave of 64 days only or just 2 months in all. Women need more time both before and after delivery to look after their own well-being and that of the new baby. This is also more ludicrous when you consider that now, men are being given paid paternity leave in some organisations.

In most private organisations, women are made to undergo pregnancy tests before they are employed to ensure they are not pregnant. And thereafter they must enter into an agreement that states that they cannot become pregnant for two years after being employed.

A few months down the line, a little while after I had come to terms with being fired, I encountered another face of the issue of the lack of reproductive rights for women. The public hospital where I was supposed to give birth had a serious issue with my (single) marital status. Even when I went through the registration process, they were reluctant to put down my name as a ‘miss’ and there were unnecessary and intrusive questions about my ‘husband’. As a matter of fact there were aspects of the registration I could not complete because I had no husband. It did not matter that I had my mother there to authorise the procedures required, they wanted a man. I literally had to bring in a friend of a friend -someone I did not know personally- to stand in for me and authorise whatever was required.

Away from my personal experiences, there are issues of unsafe abortions and unwanted pregnancies, child marriages, female sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, incest, rape, sexual harassment that happen to women and girls in Nigeria on a daily basis. There is always news of a newborn dumped in a rubbish dump or on the streets or in a body of water, ostensibly because the pregnancy was unplanned due to a lack of reproductive information. Maternal mortality is still a major issue in Nigeria.

There was this tragic story a year ago of a woman pregnant with twins who had developed complications and had to be rushed to the hospital. She was left unattended to for hours at the hospital due to a doctors' strike or some other administrative issue. Eventually she died but her babies were still vigorously fighting for their lives in her womb. All attempts by her sister-in law- who accompanied her to the hospital- to plead with the medical personnel to help save the lives of the babies, at least, were fruitless. Eventually, the sister-in-law, weeping profusely, bought a razor blade and performed n amateur- and undoubtedly the most distressing- surgery on her dead sister-in-law to rescue the babies right in front of the hospital doors. But even though she was able to evacuate the babies, a lack of immediate follow -up care ensured that they also died within the hour.

All these issues on women’s reproductive health and rights, in my opinion, stem from a deep-seated disrespect of women’s rights in Nigeria, both at the individual and the community level. It also calls for stronger provision and enforcement of lawson gender equality. It is not enough to pay lip service to gender equality every year in March while statutory, cultural and religious factors continually cause the oppression of women and the suppression of our rights. It is my fervent prayer that in 2017, we, Nigerian women, will come together with all the powers at our disposal to jolt our society into doing better about our sexual and reproductive rights.

How to Get Involved

Please join my journey to creating a non-judgmental society for women living with HIV and women generally. Find out more on www.the loloinitiative.org.

This story was submitted in response to Women’s Bodies and the Law.

Comments 7

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Jill Langhus
Jan 19, 2017
Jan 19, 2017

Aw, Mary. What a heart-wrenching story and account of lack of women's reproductive rights. I'm glad you shared your story so other women are aware and can help. How did you manage after you were fired and single? I mean without income? I hope you and your child have been managing okay? I fervently hope, too, that women in Nigeria will have good reproductive rights; the rights they deserved in the first place, very soon. Good luck on your initiative and do keep us posted here on future developments. Thanks.

Mary Ero
Jan 19, 2017
Jan 19, 2017

Dear Jlanghus,

Thank you so much for your comment. 

The answer to your questions are in the 6 year struggle I have had to make ends meet and provide for my child. It was not easy when I was fired. Not easy at all and for about 3 years afterwards we survived on donations from people. Things are not as bad now but they can and will definitely get better. This is why I am determined to ensure as much as I can that other women do not encounter what I did.

Jill Langhus
Jan 20, 2017
Jan 20, 2017

I bet it wasn't. Good for you:-) Shine on, sister:-)

IAmBeautiful
Jan 20, 2017
Jan 20, 2017

Sorry to learn about what you went through and agree no one should go through this.

Mary Ero
Jan 20, 2017
Jan 20, 2017

Thank you very much Iambeautiful. And, yes, no one should.

Opeyemibisi
Jan 28, 2017
Jan 28, 2017

 Thanks for sharing your story, Honestly pregnant women go through a lot of pains from the employers and even health workers in Nigeria, we need to keep talking about it so that women's lives can be more secured.

Carrie Lee
Jan 31, 2017
Jan 31, 2017

This is an eye opening story. I thank you for your truth-telling. "When the laws fight against our bodies" what a good title!   Here in the U.S., it was only fairly recently that women were protected from being fired from jobs when becoming pregnant- My mother could have been legally fired for becoming pregnant with me in 1976.  

I agree that these issues stem from deep-seated disrespect for women's rights. 

Thank you again for sharing.