Chamindri* had 6 more months of maternity leave left. Her daughter was now just 3 months old and still needed the mother’s close attention, but Chamindri had little choice. So she woke up early, dressed herself in her white uniform and returned to her work.
Chamindri is a nurse at a state hospital, and like all pregnant mothers in the state sector, she was entitled to 3 months of paid leave, followed by 3 months of half-paid leave, and another 3 months of unpaid leave. While this would have been ideal for her and her small family of four, they had bills and loans to pay.
Her story is no exception. For the average Sri Lankan working mother, half-pay leave and no-pay leave are luxuries they cannot afford to take.
But it does not end there. Not for the nurses. Leaving her baby in the care of her elderly parents, Chamindri took care of what felt like a hundred grown men and women. Checking temperatures, checking intravenous treatments, delivering accurate doses of medicines — all while thoughts of her new baby were lingered at the back of her mind.
Some days though, she didn’t even get to go home. Working over-time and night-shifts are mandatory for nurses for a specified number of days each month. Some days she would not see her baby till the late hours of night. On those days her husband would pick their daughter from the grandparents’ home after work, take home, change her nappies, feed her, wash her and try to put her to sleep.
Mandatory work plans for nurses are not flexible, and finding a substitute to take over was almost impossible even before she was pregnant.
Having a supportive husband made life easier for her. But it doesn’t ease the anxiety a new mother has when she’s away from her child for the whole day.
While there are laws and policies in place to help working mothers, there also lapses in the system that don’t allow everyone to benefit. This is one reason why women in Sri Lanka become stay-at-home mothers after giving birth, or have children later in life – which causes the fertility rate of the country to drop.
There are educated women in Sri Lanka who would like to be a part of the labour force but find it impossible once they enter motherhood. Labour force participation rate of women is at 30%, while the rate is at 75.8% for men, according to the population and census report, 2012.
With flexible-working hours, day care at work and the option to work from home or online – depending on the field they working in – women can continue to work while raising children. Of course, many like Chamindri have little choice, and deal with the physical, mental and emotional stresses of being a working mother in Sri Lanka.