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A mother holding a hand of a small baby showing love and affection

Photo credit: iStockphoto/x-reflexnaja

Maternity protection is a human right enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Income security for newborn mothers ensures their mental and physical wellbeing and contributes to the healthy development of their infants.  Though 41 countries in Asia and the Pacific have instituted statutory maternity leave benefits, just over one in three newborn mothers is actually receiving a maternity benefit. Many countries still fall short of the ILO recommended 18 weeks duration, with only 14 countries meeting this standard. There persists a vast gap between aspiration and effective protection for newborn mothers.

Almost two-thirds of women of reproductive age in Asia and the Pacific are outside the labour force and thus do not qualify for work-related contributory maternity benefits. Even for working women, social protection remains elusive. Contributory schemes and their accompanying income security are out of reach for female informal workers, ranging from 97.3 per cent of total female employment in Afghanistan to just over one quarter in Australia (Figure 1). Working women who may be eligible often do not meet qualifying criteria for schemes, such as number of years contributing into a scheme, due to breaks taken in their careers to attend to care duties. There is increasing recognition that the right to minimum income security during maternity should apply to all new parents- not only working mothers- regardless of their employment status. Few countries however provide universal non-contributory maternity benefits to safeguard income security for all newborn mothers.

Figure 1. A large proportion of women are in informal employment in countries across Asia and the Pacific (Source: ESCAP SDG Gateway Data Explorer )

The newly launched and publicly available maternity module of the ESCAP SPOT Simulator enables policy makers to observe the economic value and price tag of different maternity benefits in 27 countries. It demonstrates that introducing universal non-contributory maternity benefits at a basic benefit level for a duration of 18 weeks can ensure that a majority of newborn mothers do not have to raise their infants in poverty. In the Maldives and Uzbekistan, it would lift every newborn mother over the national and respective international poverty lines and reduce poverty by at least half for newborn mothers in 10 countries (See Figure 2). By making these benefits universal and non-contributory, it would guarantee coverage of the high proportion of female informal worker and other mothers who were hitherto excluded. All for costs ranging between only 0.1 per cent and 0.4 per cent of GDP.

Figure 2. Universal non-contributory maternity benefits can have a significant poverty reduction impact (Source: ESCAP SPOT Simulator)

As outlined in the ESCAP-ILO primer on how to design maternity and paternity leave policies, three features underscore the capacity of governments to realise the right to maternity protection and achieve its full potential. Benefits should be collectively financed, such as through social insurance or taxes, rather than employer liability; of an adequate duration to enable mothers to recover from pregnancy and birth as well as care for their infants, without negatively impacting on their return to work; and at a minimum, provide a level of benefit to ensure that mother and their newborn child can stay healthy and out of poverty.

Extending maternity benefits of an adequate level and duration to all newborn mothers is a first step. We would do well to remember that maternity does not operate in a vacuum. Caring for an infant is not only the domain of mothers and it is vital to promote the participation of fathers in childcare to bond and co-parent their newborn. The incremental rise in paid paternity leave and duration in the region signal that countries are increasingly acknowledging the need to balance care responsibilities and increase engagement of fathers. Promoting the role of fathers in childcare helps to normalise this shared responsibility, although uptake is still low. Raising a child entails a continuum of care that spans pre-pregnancy, antenatal care, birth and breastfeeding to early childhood, universal childcare and universal primary education. Maternity benefits are at the initial stage in this continuum of care and should be coordinated to ensure seamless social protection is afforded to parents and families throughout this period.

In March 2024, governments and stakeholders gather for the 68th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to reflect on pathways to women’s empowerment by addressing poverty and advancing more gender-responsive social protection systems. Investments in maternity benefits are fundamental to safeguard the wellbeing of mothers and support a continuum of care for parents and children. At a fraction of GDP, universal tax financed maternity benefits are an effective instrument to guarantee all mothers are free from poverty at this critical stage of motherhood and infant development.

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Sayuri Cocco Okada
Social Affairs Officer
Social Development +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]