MATERNITY LEAVE ISSUE REACHES NEW LEVEL IN COOK ISLANDS

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By Tara Carr

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (May 11, 2002 – Cook Islands News)--Efforts to ensure proper maternity protection for Cook Islands women have reached a new stage, says Cook Islands Workers’ Association (CIWA) president Miriama Pierre.

And she says it’s high time government took some action on the issue.

Having just completed a campaign to raise awareness about the need for paid maternity leave, Pierre said the association now plans to approach the government for assistance.

CIWA will work with international conventions, which have been signed by the Cook Islands.

According to Pierre, they include an article that supports maternity leave, contained in the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

CIWA is also working with recommendations passed in June 2000 by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

At a meeting where the Cook Islands government was represented, ILO adopted a new Maternity Protection Convention and Recommendation (Convention No 183 and Recommendation No 191), says Pierre.

Using this new international labor standard, trade unions around the world began campaigning to make maternity protection a reality for all working women.

Pierre said the trade unions’ recommendations included seeking maternity protection for all employed women, whether they are married or unmarried.

One recommendation was that the amount of leave provided to women be no less than 14 weeks, and that six weeks’ compulsory postnatal leave be provided.

ILO Convention No183 also looks at cash and medical benefits a woman is entitled to.

It contains recommendations on health and employment protection and protection against discrimination as well as a provision for breast feeding.

"Since the meeting no further push for maternity protection has come out," said Pierre.

"We feel that because the Cook Islands was represented by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, government is aware of the needs that are being pushed for at that level. That is something we need to look into."

Pierre said CIWA plans to work closely with the various women’s organizations on Rarotonga.

"It’s important that we understand the need for maternity protection for our women workers.

"We need to find a way to push together for assistance for protection through government," she said.

She admits some women working in the private sector are facing real problems when it comes to maternity protection.

"Many don’t get maternity leave at all," she said.

In cases involving small private businesses, Pierre said it is often financially difficult for employers to support a person on full wages for six weeks of maternity leave.

However, she considers it an important issue that needs to be looked at by government.

"When our women are not working while having their babies they sometimes have no money coming into the household. With less money coming into the household their quality of living will also fall," said Pierre.

"In New Zealand, to where a lot of our local people migrate, woman having babies are better protected, as they receive a solo mother benefit, which is better than the average weekly wage paid here in the Cook Islands," she added.

Mothers here receive just NZ$ 20 a fortnight or NZ$ 40 a month from government to help with baby expenses.

Pierre points out that for a country that’s had its own government for over 30 years the benefit is very low.

"These children could be tomorrow’s leaders. We are looking at government to find a way for some form of assistance to be given to every working woman so they can have six weeks fully paid maternity leave."

A recent radio talkback session, which discussed the issue, brought suggestions from the public that some of the country’s tax revenue should be allocated to give women workers — especially those in the private sector — at least six weeks’ paid maternity leave.

"Why hasn’t this happened yet?" asks Pierre.

"If our people can get better protection in New Zealand and a solo mother’s benefit, why should they stay down here [in the Cook Islands]. That’s what everyone needs to look at."

CIWA wants help from the government for both privately employed workers and those working for the Public Service.

"They are our woman no matter where they work and they deserve assistance," she said.

Five workshops have been held regarding the issue.

Pierre said CIWA was working closely with government’s women’s division to help channel the issue through government.

Their efforts will center on the Employment Relations Bill and CEDAW, which contain articles that are concerned with the welfare of women.

"This isn’t an issue that affects women only, but the whole family," added Pierre.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online. 

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