Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay, in the monthly meet the press, said that based on what he had seen in the newspapers, he welcomed the Royal Civil Service Commission’s (RCSC) maternity leave proposal.
The Prime Minister also called it a progressive proposal from the RCSC. He said that the Cabinet would sit down and look at the proposal in detail once it reached them. The RCSC in its final maternity leave proposal has proposed a six months maternity leave and another six months flexi-time.
The RCSC proposal will be submitted to the cabinet next month but this paper had done a story on the proposal in its last issue.
“Six months is what the World Health Organization recommends for exclusive breastfeeding, and I think if we can give that to our public servants then it is fantastic. Also, six months in terms of flexi-time will be very effective especially given that we are quietly promoting the development of child crèches in all ministries,” said the PM.
Lyonchhen said that government corporations have their own human resource management but, he hoped that once the cabinet takes a decision, government corporations would implement something that is good for both the mother and children
The RCSC proposal came about after the cabinet formed a government committee lead by Lyonpo Dorji Choden who is also the Chairperson for the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC). The committee saw various important stakeholders of which the most important was the Health Ministry, which gave detailed health justifications for the maternity leave.
The government committee proposal gave two options of which one was a six month maternity leave. The proposal was given to the RCSC in January 2015 and the RCSC formed its own taskforce and did its own due diligence.
The original government proposal proposes a seven month flexi time for the private sector. The PM said that for the private sector he was confident that in the future they could have a common system.
The PM said that increasing the maternity leave is a progressive policy initiative and the government is committed to increasing the flexi-time for new mothers. He said, “It is very important as that we as a society and country render complete support to our new mothers so that mothers can enjoy parenting and take care of newborns and on the other hand newborn children can have the best possible start to life.”
Lyonchhen also highlighted that maternity leave is even more relevant today as there are fewer and fewer domestic helpers, as a result of Bhutan’s successes in education. “All the children are going to schools. We want to make it even more convenient and affordable to attend schools, which means that there is going to be even less domestic helpers and that would mean that mothers need even more support in bringing up their children,” said the PM
The Health Minister Lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk reiterated that studies show that breast milk is the most complete and wholesome nutrition for a newborn. “It is also cost effective, diseases preventing and health promoting. It substantially lowers the risk of death from infectious diseases, prevents hospital admission due to diarrhea and lowers respiratory infections and decreases morbidity from gastrointestinal and allergic diseases,” said Lyonpo.
Lyonpo pointed out that breastfeeding is beneficial for mothers too as studies show that women who breastfeed have longer intervals between births and, as a result, a lower risk of maternal morbidity and mortality. There are also lower rates of breast cancer rates before menopause and potentially lower risks of ovarian cancer, osteoporosis and coronary heart disease.
While the practice of breastfeeding in Bhutan is universal, it is far from optimal. The National Nutrition, Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) Survey of 2008 indicated that the exclusive breastfeeding rates in the country for the first six months were only 10.4%.
In other countries one of the prime reasons cited by mothers for not being able to exclusively breastfeed their child for six months was having to return to work.
“The current three months maternity benefits in Bhutan are not adequate to create an enabling environment for mother to exclusively breastfeed their children for six months,” said Lyonpo.
He said from the health point of view, increasing 9 months flexi-time maternity benefits as promised in the election manifesto was very valid. However, increasing the maternity leave would entail a lot of unintended implications like cost escalation, human resource shortages and gender preference in the job markets etc.
“So a middle way of six months paid maternity leave with flexi time is a better solution which is still very good. We understand that with the new proposal the cost and other implications will still be there but not as much,” said Lyonpo.
He said that the cost increase and the other implications would only be in the short and medium term and it would be outweighed by the long term benefits of exclusive breastfeeding.
The health minister stressed that exclusively breastfed babies would grow up to be healthy individuals who do not need significant investments in health. He said they would also grow up to be productive adults who would contribute significantly to the economic development of the country.