Low coverage of maternity protection
Because of economic pressures and the lack of income security, most women workers in the informal economy cannot afford to significantly reduce their workload, in- cluding unpaid household and care work, before and af- ter childbirth. As a consequence, many continue engag- ing in work activities too far into pregnancy or start working too soon after childbirth, and expose themselves and their children to significant health risks (ILO, 2013; 2010; 2007).
Maternity benefit schemes providing income security are a core component of maternity protection. However, they still cover a minority of women: in fact, only 28 per cent of those in employment, often wage and salaried workers in the formal economy, are effectively protected by cash benefits in the event of maternity (ILO, 2014a) . Thus, certain categories of workers are often excluded, includ- ing own-account and contributing family workers, espe- cially in rural areas, employees holding informal jobs, do- mestic workers, casual and home workers. Also women who perform unpaid household and care work as their primary activity need protection around childbirth.
Workers in the informal economy are particularly vulner- able to the risks of income insecurity and ill health be- cause of unsafe and insecure working conditions, often low and volatile incomes, dispersed workplaces with lim- ited access to public services and a lack of representa- tion in collective bargaining processes (Lund, 2012).
Developmental benefits of maternity protection
Maternity protection is essential to promote the health, nutrition and well-being of mothers and their children, to achieve gender equality at work, prevent and reduce pov- erty and to advance decent work for both women and men. This makes maternity protection the first key step of the comprehensive set of care policies that promote women’s economic empowerment, prevent informaliza- tion and enable individuals and societies to thrive, espe- cially in the context of demographic transitions. It in- creases the chances of survival of the mother and the newborn and lays the conditions for optimal physical and cognitive development of the infant. Without maternity protection, women may shift into lower-paid and more insecure work in order to breastfeed and care for their infants. While they initially consider it a temporary cop- ing strategy, women with children are likely to stay in the informal economy as they juggle childcare and earning an income (Alfers, 2016). Maternity protection therefore contributes to the achievement of multiple Sustainable Development Goals (namely goals 1, 3, 5, 8 and 10) and
is a key component of the transformative policies called for in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Adequate maternity protection protects women from eco- nomic losses, gender discrimination and health risks re- lated to maternity in a comprehensive way. Specific measures include paid maternity leave, maternal and child health care, employment protection and non-dis- crimination, health protection at the workplace for preg- nant and nursing women and breastfeeding arrange- ments at work.
In particular, income security is essential to enable women to rest and recover before and after childbirth and establish breastfeeding, to prevent health risks for women and their children and to protect women from in- come losses during this critical period. Paid maternity leave is thus a core element of social protection systems alongside other adequate benefits in cash and in kind, including effective access to quality health care services for all (ILO, 2014a; 2014b). Yet, estimates suggest that over 800 million women workers are lacking income se- curity as a result of maternity (ILO, 2014a; see Figure 1). Many of these unprotected women are in the informal economy, and most of them live in developing countries.
Unless coverage of maternity cash benefit schemes is ex- tended to women workers in the informal economy through adequate measures that take into account their
characteristics, circumstances and needs, the large ma- jority of women workers will continue lacking effective access to maternity care and income security during and after pregnancy.
An increasing number of countries are developing strat- egies to extend maternity benefits coverage to women in the informal economy, although more efforts are neces- sary for universal protection. The outcome of such an in- vestment will contribute tremendously to enhancing ma- ternal and child health, ensuring adequate nutrition, eliminating poverty, as well as achieving gender equality and decent work in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.