Syrian Civil Society Organizations are Accomplices in Robbing Women of Maternity Leave

By Amal Hamidouch

Hiba al-Hammadi, from Raqqa governorate, eastern Syria, was punished by terminating her work contract, due to her pregnancy and childbirth, instead of receiving sufficient maternity leave.

Hiba works in Raqqa, and communicates with the organization remotely to carry out her work.

Her direct supervisor at a Syrian organization licensed in Germany did not appreciate the fact that she had secured the job while pregnant.

He directly told her that if he had known before hiring that she was pregnant, he would have “refused to hire her.”

Regardless of her competence, and that she underwent a direct interview with him, in which she succeeded, before starting her work!

Hiba told “Sharika Walaken” that she “suffered from a medical condition which led to her premature birth, shortly after starting work, so the organization terminated her contract.”

She added that “she was asked to stay at home for two months without pay, and then return to work with the same organization, with a new contract.”

Knowing that one of the organization’s goals, where Hiba works, is to advocate for women’s rights. So what about her own rights?

Workers’ right to maternity leave is stolen!

Hiba is an example of many women who have paid the price for the low level of commitment to the rights of pregnant women, working in Syrian civil society organizations.

The figures that we reached, through a questionnaire that included 134 female workers in Syrian civil associations and organizations, indicate that there is a rights crisis facing them.

Foremost among them is the right to adequate maternity leave.

Syrian law, for example, stipulates that the duration of this leave is 120 days for the first child, 90 days for the second, and 75 days for the third.

While 48.4% of the 90 pregnant women surveyed took maternity leave between 7 and 30 days only.

Duration of leave granted to female workers in civil society organizations.

We interviewed Rasha, 30, who preferred not to give her full name, and works for a local branch of an international health organization.

She confirmed that “maternity leave at her workplace in Raqqa is limited to one week only. All women are informed of this at the start of employment.”

She also told “Sharika Walaken” that “the women tried to object to the decision, and demanded an increase in the duration of the leave.”

However, the direct response that Rasha received to these demands, during her conversation with one of the local directors of the organization, was: “We have many pregnant women, and we cannot open the door for long vacations.”

At the same time, Rasha and her colleagues do not find many other options for work.

This often forces them to accept this reality, so as not to lose the work opportunity in light of the economic conditions that Syria is witnessing.

“These organizations fail to grant women working for them sufficient paid maternity leave.

Or this right is limited to female employees with fixed and long contracts, and their number is small in most organizations compared to the number of female employees of various types of implemented projects.”

Cesarean section called for adequate maternity leave

Despite the universal encouragement of natural childbirth, and the avoidance of cesarean section without a medical need for it, some women are trying their all to give birth by operation.

But they don’t do it out of love or desire for surgery, but rather in pursuit of a longer vacation.

This was the case for Fatima Zaidan from Efrin, who was working with an organization registered in Turkey and active in northern Syria.

During our meeting with Fatima she said that she and her fellow pregnant women “raise their hands to the sky in prayer to give birth by cesarean section.”

The reason is the leave for natural childbirth does not exceed one week.  While the leave for getting the cesarean section is 15 days.

Punishment for Pregnancy… A negative discrimination

Some organizations practice “negative discrimination” towards pregnant women, which manifests itself in various forms.

For example, dealing with them as if they are sick, or unable to do their work as before.

Thus, they are excluded from performing some tasks, without being asked for their opinion or if they are able to continue performing it.

However, this alleged consideration does not take into account meeting times, for example.

Some of those we met indicated that the managers chose inappropriate times for holding meetings, such as the evening or outside working hours.

It is a time when the mother must be with her child, bearing in mind that most of the workers in the Syrian civil society organizations are required to perform tasks after the end of the official working hours.

We also met Rasha Al Sayegh, one of those who faced negative discrimination during her pregnancy.

She was the director of the coastal area between 2012 and 2020, in one of the largest organizations operating inside Syria.

Her work required supervising and inspecting project implementation, reviewing plans and reports, and managing meetings.

In her interview with our platform, Rasha said that she was “excluded and marginalized during her pregnancy.”

She added that “several functions and responsibilities were withdrawn from her without informing or consulting her. Her geographical responsibilities had also been limited.”

The pretext was “taking into account her health condition,” although she had not defaulted on any of her tasks nor objected to them.

On the other hand, when it was time to give birth, her health condition and her right stipulated by the law was not taken into account, nor was it respected, and she was granted leave for only one week.

Women hiding their pregnancies

Concealing the pregnancy is an option that some women use to avoid negative discrimination, suspension from employment, or any problems they may encounter while trying to conceive.

Mays Mahjouba from Latakia shared her experience on this matter.

She said: “While I was working with an international organization that has an office in Damascus, I had to hide my pregnancy for fear of losing my job, since it coincided with a staff reduction process through dismissal or working on half pay.”

She added, “The announcement of the pregnancy was a real threat to me, so I worked for 9 months to make sure my pregnancy wasn’t known. What really helped me is that I worked from another province.”

She explained, “I was deliberately, in the pictures of the reports, wearing loose, wide clothes, and asking to be taken from the back, so that no one would notice my pregnancy.”

And she emphasized that “after giving birth, which was very sudden for the organization, and punctuated by many difficulties, I got a 20-day leave, which included the completion of many tasks.”

Organizational moods and donor responsibility

Temperament and individuality determine the decision to grant maternity leave or not. As well as in determining the due leave period.

85% of the women surveyed by our platform work in licensed organizations inside or outside Syria.

A map of the geographical distribution of the Syrian civil society organizations that were included in the questionnaire implemented in the framework of this investigation

While about 29% of women work without contracts, some of whom have been working for several years.

Even those who have contracts, and their percentage is estimated at 71% according to the questionnaire, do not have any provisions related to maternity leave included in their contracts.

The bylaws of most institutions do not provide for the details of this leave.

Is there a documented employment contract between you and the association/organization you work for?

It is also remarkable that 41.8% of working women do not receive a copy of the contract after signing it, which is another violation of rights.

Do you have a copy of the employment contract?

In the absence of clear texts and clauses, the matter is subject to the mood of officials in the organizations, and the personal decision of some of them, even with regard to the employment or non-employment of pregnant women.

Some organizations directly ask women if they are pregnant during an employment interview, to which feminist Maya Al-Rahabi objected.

She described it as a “discriminatory question that is not allowed to be used in job interviews.”

She called on the women to “file a lawsuit against those who ask this question, which aims to exclude pregnant women from job opportunities.”

Maya Al-Rahbi said, in her interview with “Sharika Walaken,” that “the absence of accountability in Syrian civil society is one of the most important reasons why workers are not granted adequate maternity leave. Added to this is the patriarchal mentality that governs the leadership of some of these organizations.”

“However, this does not absolve the donors of their responsibilities,” according to the feminist activist and director of the Equity and Empowerment Center, registered in Turkey, Heba Ezz El-Din.

Organizations that have committed violations in their offices refrain from answering?

Some of the women we met agreed to share with us the names of the organizations that violated their right to maternity leave, on the condition that the names of these organizations not be published, for reasons related to work and its complex conditions in Syria.

And they considered that the priority is the future and changing this reality, and not turning it into a personal problem that they were exposed to alone, but rather a general problem that must be prevented from recurring.

Despite this, we tried to communicate with organizations that have been accused of this violation.

We sent them an email via the officially announced email address, and asked for the phone number of a supervisor or director to contact for answers to our questions, or answer them directly via email.

We also gave them a deadline for a response that exceeded one month, but we did not receive any response until the moment the preparation of this investigation was completed.

Why don’t organizations and associations grant full maternity leave?

The reluctance of organizations that have committed serious violations in their offices has not stopped us from looking for an answer to our question why most organizations do not grant full and paid maternity leave.

Heba Ezz El-Din, Director of the Center for Equity and Empowerment, replied: “We do not have the financial capabilities necessary to grant a 4-month leave. Employment expenses are strictly defined, and therefore we need a contingency budget.”

Heba added: “We discussed this with the donors, and we proposed that we include a clause in the project budget that covers gender sensitivity, such as motherhood, for example. If it is not used, it will be returned to the donors.”

But, she explained that they “welcomed the idea in line with their discourse supporting women, but the procedural matters were complicated.”

For that reason, and based on this reality, Heba said: “We found an internal solution, which is to agree on a paid maternity leave of 40 days, provided that the rest of the male and female colleagues perform the duties of the colleague during her absence, since we do not have the financial capabilities to hire a replacement person.”

She indicated that she “had recently given birth to twins, and she did not obtain paid maternity leave for more than 40 days, during which she performed some essential things at work.”

The same applies to the “Bokra Ahla” (Tomorrow Is Better) association in Aleppo.

“The main obstacle to granting full maternity leave lies in sporadic funding,” said the association’s director, Mariana Ali, to “Sharika Walaken.”

Added to this is “the dependence on donors, who often do not finance the salaries of workers in the association,” according to Mariana.

She pointed out that “sometimes money may be available in the association’s budget to cover maternity leave, but when there is no budget available, we grant paid leave for one month. While the rest of the male and female colleagues perform tasks on behalf of the mother, in addition to their other tasks.”

Mariana explained, “These are the circumstances of the institution in which she works, but these justifications do not apply to everyone. There are large organizations with huge budgets that refuse to grant full and paid maternity leave.”

What does the law say?

This problem raises questions about the legality of these procedures, and how they are viewed by Syrian law, which clearly stipulates the granting of maternity leave and specifies its duration and details.

It is the same for the laws in the countries where these organizations were licensed and where maternity leave ranges mostly between 3 to 4 months.

In an interview with “Sharika Walaken,” lawyer Aref Al-Shaal pointed out that “Article 121 of the Syrian Labor Law stipulates the granting of maternity leave, and this right is universal and based on landmark agreements and international treaties that most countries of the world have joined.”

He explained that “even pregnant women who work without a contract notarized by the Syrian authorities can benefit from this advantage, and therefore any Syrian organization is obligated to give women this leave.”

He also stressed that “if they do not obtain it, they can file a lawsuit before the court, which must grant them this right.”

In response to a question about the possibility of filing a lawsuit against unregistered organizations, Aref Al-Shaal confirmed that “those responsible for these organizations can be sued personally, if they are not registered.”

He added, “The law discards the justification related to the fact that the donor does not grant financial support for maternity leave, and prosecutes the organization without giving any consideration for it.”

He pointed out that “the ruling may amount to seizing the funds of the organizations which refrain from granting workers the right to full and paid maternity leave.”

Regarding the organizations registered abroad and having female employees in Syria, according to Article 20 of the Civil Code:

Contractual obligations are governed by the law of the country in which the co-residence of the contracting parties is located.

If the domicile is not shared, the law of the country in which the contract was concluded shall apply. If the employee and the organization have different domiciles, the Syrian Law may be applicable. If both parties are abroad, the law of the country where they are both residents shall be applicable.

Here, Al-Shaal stressed that “most of these countries provide for the right to adequate maternity leave, and therefore these organizations can be prosecuted in the places where they are licensed.”

As for international organizations that have offices inside Syria, they can be sued from within Syria, according to Al-Shaal.

Calls to change reality

International organizations are obligated to grant Syrian female employees working directly with them maternity leave.

But, when it comes to their Syrian partner organizations, the donors do not ask about the workers’ rights of this leave.

During the preparation of this investigation, an employee working in a United Nations organization, and another in a Swedish donor organization (who preferred not to reveal their names), admitted that they do not ask about maternity leave while building partnerships with local Syrian organizations.

They are required to pay attention mainly to the vision and values of the partner association, its financial policies in detail, the employment policy, and the protection policy and procedures.

Based on this reality, the eight workers, whom we met with during the preparation of this investigation, made suggestions that went in two directions:

The first is to put pressure on the donors to ensure the right to maternity leave in the projects they fund, and to provide budgets for them.

The second option is at the level of local organizations and associations, to pressure them so that their internal regulations clearly stipulate the granting of maternity leave, and to provide internal mechanisms to ensure full access to it.

Most importantly, educate women more about their legal right to file a lawsuit, and their right to adequate and paid maternity leave.

Investigation: Amal Hamidouch

Supervision: Bisan Al-Sheikh

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