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.