Activists hope campaign will prompt wider action on women's rights.


Protest against changes to maternity benefits in Kazakstan. Astana, March 9, 2013. (Photo: Aliya Delmasheva)

Protest against changes to maternity benefits in Kazakstan. Astana, March 9, 2013. (Photo: Aliya Delmasheva)



By Saule Mukhametrakhimova - Central Asia - 20 Mar 2013

A campaign against changes to the law on loss of earnings during pregnancy could coalesce into a broad movement fighting for the rights of women in Kazakstan, activists say.

The campaign was triggered by a February 17 change to the law covering compensation for loss of earnings during pregnancy and maternity leave.

Separate from maternity pay, which is paid for the first year of a child's life, the loss-of-earnings benefit covers a four month period.

The new law caps the amount that women can claim if they earn more than 1,230 US dollars a month. Women in the higher income bracket are now eligible for payments not exceeding 5,200 dollars for the four months. Employers can make up the difference, but this is optional and subject to negotiation.

Almaty journalist Madina Aimbetova, for example, would previously have received 7,515 dollars in loss-of-earnings benefit, but the sum will now be capped at 2,100 dollars less than that. She doubts her employer will make up the shortfall, as this is not mandatory.

A group called Fair Maternity Leave is campaigning against the law, and has expressed concern at the lack of public debate about changes it believes will lead to sexual discrimination in the workplace.

Aliya Delmasheva, a member of the group in the capital Astana, says campaigners are exploring possible avenues for getting the law revoked, lobbying members of parliament and approaching the state prosecutor’s office.

If that tactic fails, Fair Maternity Leave will push for amendments that alter the way employers pay into the national Social Insurance Fund. This, they say, could allow higher benefits to be paid without bankrupting either employers or the welfare fund itself – the latter risk being the reason that legislators gave for changing the law.

Fair Maternity Leave now has around 9,000 Facebook followers and has organised several small demonstrations and flash mobs in Almaty and Astana. Over 100 letters have been sent to members of the parliament, with petitions also directed to President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the prosecutor general’s office.

According to Dana Amanova, a financial manager with the Central Asia office of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, what really annoys campaign participants is the fact that women will have to negotiate any top-up payments with their employers.

Alexandra Alekhova, a 32-year-old Almaty journalist with the Vremya newspaper, is five months pregnant with her second child. A single mother who does not receive child support, she would have been able to afford to stay off work for four months with her new baby under the old system. Now, she says, she faces a dilemma – either cutting the time she takes off work, or trying to pare down her outgoings drastically enough to survive.

Alekhova said the campaign was being backed by trade unions and non-government groups. A March 12 discussion on gender policy, attended by government officials as well as civil society activists, ended with an agreement to set up a centre to coordinate their efforts.

There is more at stake than protecting the interests of middle-class women, Alekhova argues. The real issue is the basic guarantee of women’s right to work and have children.

“I reckon that by the summer, a small group of discontented women could have turned into a large slice of the population, with people of all income groups represented,” she said. “Everyone realises that if they’re moving against pregnant women at the moment, they’ll impose cuts on other categories later."

Others expressed resentment at the lack of prior notice.

“I am fed up that decisions are made for me without any discussion,”
Aimbetova said.

She said the amendment was indicative that conditions for women were deteriorating more generally, so the campaign needed to be broadened.

“Policies towards women should be changed – I mean the reduction in alimony payments and the raising of the retirement age for women to 63,” she said, referring to two recent proposals from the government.

Officials defend the change to the law by saying that if the welfare fund, which covers loss of earnings due to unemployment, disability or loss of principal breadwinner, had to sustain the rate of payouts it had been making, it would be in the red by 2025. Since 2008 payments, the fund has been made responsible for maternity and loss-of-earnings payments, which formerly rested with employers.

Labour minister Serik Abdenov told the Vremya newspaper that the previous system had encouraged a 500-plus per cent increase in the number of working women who decided to have children, from 70,000 in 2007 to 380,000 last year.

He claimed that the new law affects only 1.2 per cent of women, those who were high earners and who under the old system would effectively have drawn more out of the fund than their employers contributed.

Abdenov acknowledged that the change was needed because officials had miscalculated the costs of running the scheme as it was. But he said the previous policy was based on the information available at the time, when wage increases and the steep rise in childbirth rates had not been factored in.

The minister met representatives of Fair Maternity Leave in mid-February, and he has promised to organise talks with employers’ associations and to persuade companies to commit to paying the difference between the old loss-of-earnings payments and the new capped amount.

At the beginning of March, Abdenov’s ministry published a list of businesses in various parts of Kazakstan that have agreed to cover the shortfall.

Campaigners say they will reject offers that do not offer long-term solutions for all working women.

Journalist Alekhova said that no woman would dare press her employer into taking on the extra payment. Even if large businesses agreed to do so, this would affect a limited number of women.

“There aren’t many large enterprises in Kazakstan," she said. "The majority of people are employed by small and medium-sized businesses,” adding that it was unrealistic to expect the authorities to negotiate with tens of thousands of companies.

A staff member of an international organisation based in Kazakstan – who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR that Fair Maternity Leave was the first significant grassroots campaign organised by women with no prompting from politicial parties or international bodies.

“There would have been no such outcry had the ministry carried out a public debate beforehand,” she said, adding that educated middle-class women contributed to the economy by remaining in employment and paying taxes.

“These women are trying to juggle pursuing a career and having children,” she said.