My supervisor was based in South Africa and I in Nigeria. The week before I was fired, he asked me why I was attending antenatal clinic on Tuesdays for the whole day. He told me that when his sister was pregnant she would attend clinic and return to work after only a few hours away.
I explained to him that we had a different system in Nigeria where women had the whole day off for these classes.
What I could not explain, however, was that I was attending clinic in the cheaper public hospital where I was among scores of women waiting all day to see the only doctor on staff. Or that on clinic day I also had to receive treatment for HIV in another private facility. I did not think it was my supervisor’s concern, nor did I think it mattered to him.
What followed was an email discussion about my maternity leave. He informed me that, should I choose to take it, it would be unpaid. This baffled and worried me equally. Was I supposed to give birth in the office, or take just one day off to give birth and come back to work the next? Of course, that would not have been possible. Women need time both before and after delivery to look after their own well-being and that of their new baby.
I thought I was lucky that the renegotiation and renewal of my employment contract was coming up soon, and so I decided that I would bring up the matter again at that time. My supervisor offered to renegotiate my contract with Human Resources staff on my behalf. It seemed a good idea at the time as they were both in South Africa and could have a face-to-face discussion.
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 got back to me almost immediately and asked if it would be a deal breaker if Human Resources offered me the same salary as before and the same terms of employment that included no time off at all.
I told him that, yes, it would be. I thought he was just trying to be sure of what I wanted before the negotiation, and I really needed the time off.
How he replied shook me to my roots: “It was nice working with you,” his next email read. I was stunned.
It was later I realized that I had been set up. There was no renegotiation of my contract with Human Resources; the company wanted a pregnant woman out.
In Nigeria, by law, all women are entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave, during which 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.
At privately owned enterprises, however, labor laws are not enforced. Employers in the private sector are permitted to formulate their own policies and entitlements with respect to maternity benefits. Discrimination against women is often the result.
For example, in private organizations, women are often required to take pregnancy tests before they are hired to ensure they are not pregnant. Thereafter, they must sign agreements that state they will not become pregnant for two years after first being hired. In some cases pregnant women are compelled to resign from their private sector jobs and reapply after giving birth.
Shortly after I had been fired from my job for being pregnant, I faced yet another threat to my reproductive rights—this time within the health system. The public hospital where I was going to give birth had a serious issue with my single marital status.
When I went through the registration process at the hospital, staff were reluctant to enter my name as “Miss” and asked intrusive and unnecessary questions about my “husband”. In fact, there were parts of the registration I could not complete because I had no husband.
For instance, Nigerian hospitals required patients’ spouses to donate blood as a way of maintaining their blood bank inventory. When I could not provide a man to give blood in my stead, my registration process was stalled.
To get approval for cesarean surgery, I literally had to bring in a male friend of a friend—someone I did not know personally—to stand in for me and authorize the procedure.
It did not matter that I had my mother with me to authorize all procedures required; they wanted a man beside me.
I believe that the barriers to women’s reproductive health and rights that I’ve recounted here stem from a deep-seated disrespect of women’s rights in general in Nigeria, both at the individual and community level.
It is not enough to pay lip service to gender equality while statutory, cultural, and religious practices continue to suppress women’s rights and oppress us. Stronger provisions and enforcement of laws on gender equality are needed.
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 upholding our sex.