If there’s one thing that you can’t avoid in Ghana, it’s contact with babies. Mothers think nothing of putting their baby on your lap on the bus if they have a bag or box on their own, and on venturing out for breakfast or lunch it is not at all unusual to find that you are expected to hold the child of the person that you have asked to make it. Even the average person walking down the street may find that they are unexpectedly handed a baby out of the window of a trotro (local bus).
But the place in Ghana where I found the presence of babies most surprising was indubitably the office. There are 15 full time employees and 3 full time babies at RAINS. We share our office with 8-month-old Wunnam, who is possibly the closest I have ever come to a Disney character in real life (my trip to EuroDisney excepted). He is a bundle of cuteness – big eyes, big smile, big personality.But for somebody who is used to working in a UK office, it can come as quite a surprise to be given a baby when his mother is going to a meeting, to have to go and pick him up when he wakes up when his mum is not around, or to find him charging up to your desk in his plastic car, which is all the while playing a high-pitched version of ‘Old MacDonald.’
The phenomenon of babies in the office is an upshot of the fact that in Ghana, the minimum maternity leave to which employees are entitled is only 12 weeks (in addition to annual leave accrued). Given that at this stage of a child’s development, nearly all mothers will still be breastfeeding, it is in most cases necessary for them to bring the baby to the office with them. Nursing mothers are entitled to interrupt their work for an hour during working hours to breastfeed their babies. This time is treated as part of their working hours and paid accordingly.
It would be interesting to assess the impact of Ghana’s maternity leave entitlements with those of the UK, where eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, and receive statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks. Does a shorter period of maternity leave lead to greater productivity in the office because the mother is away from her desk for less time, or lower productivity because she and all the colleagues around her are distracted by the baby? Are mothers more likely to return from a longer period of maternity leave, by which point they may find it harder to readjust to life in the office, or a shorter period, when they may still be adjusting to life as a mother and embarrassed about breastfeeding in front of their colleagues?
Certainly, the evidence suggests that longer paid maternity leave is associated with a wide range of benefits for mothers and their babies. Returning to work within the first 12 weeks of a baby’s life is associated with lower cognitive development scores for the baby and a greater number of depressive symptoms for the mother, while the availability of one year’s paid maternity leave is associated with a 20% decline in post-neo-natal deaths and a 15% decrease in fatalities occuring before the child reaches five years old.
Given that infant mortality rates remain high in Ghana, perhaps there is a need to extend the length of statutory maternity leave in the country.