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By Jacqueline Rodríguez Vega

The first time that I wrote something on international relations and international law, was about the maternity as a labour right in the framework of the International Labour Organization (ILO). At that time, I was trying to understand how we can be mothers, and have a wonderful career. It doesn’t seem easy to me.

Even if we think in the extreme changes on classical thought about women’s role in society, we’re going to find that females always were considered in a second level than men. And still remains this kind of discriminations. Especially in countries with a weak policy on gender equality. The reasons can be multiples, but, most of the time, these are related with the development status of the states and cultural patrons.

When ILO was created in 1919, in the same process of peace after the ending of the First World War, the third convention reached in this new International Labour Organization, was the Maternity Convention of 1919. At that time, the only concerns about women’s labour rights were those connected to the health of the mother and the fetus.

Considering that women´s sphere was the private space of home, the re-insertion to their jobs after the child was born, it was something weird to be included in this legal body. She should be occupied caring her kids and her husband.

In 1952, the international community questioned this Convention and refreshed the content: but the changes were not enough. In simple words, still were not considered in the new Convention, the right of women to return to their jobs after the child birth.

A great step in this field was the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. This body ‘is often described as an international bill of rights for women’ and ‘defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination’.

This Convention is very important for the topic that I’m trying to develop in this article, because for the first time in international law, the maternity was recognized as a ‘social function’ and specifies a ‘common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children’. To accomplishing this goal, CEDAW establishes it is primordial ‘to encourage the provision of the necessary supporting social services to enable parents to combine family obligations with work responsibilities and participation in public life’.

So, the concept of ‘parents with family obligations’, means that maternity and kids caring are not only a responsibility of the mother, and women are also a subject of labour rights and participants of the public life. Feminine space is not only the private sphere of home.

Following this accomplishment, in 1981, ILO adopted the Convention concerning Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment for Men and Women with Family Responsibilities. This international instrument covered the workers caring for dependent children and those caring other members of their family with special needs of support. For the first time, was recognized the nurturing of small infants like an aspect of employment regulation. This Convention is a remarkable achievement in the international labour law, because the separation of the two spheres of life –private and public- disappeared. Women and men are both considered as persons with the same family responsibilities, with the right of work and with the same job opportunities.

In the year 2000, a third Maternity Convention was created. This decision reflected the interest of the International Labour Office to give priority and to promote these standards (Maternity Convention 1919 and Maternity Convention 1952). The special change -and the most important aspect of this new instrument- is that for the first time in ILO’s regime, there is a real guarantee of return to ‘the same position or an equivalent position paid at the same rate’. Also, this Convention establishes an explicit abolishment of the employment discrimination based on pregnancy and declares a hard position about health protection of the mother.

This scenery looks perfect. But it doesn´t really. The awful truth is these Conventions have reached a very poor number of ratifications. Some states are not interested on embrace this international regulation, because their development stage difficult women protection at work. The importance to recognize the maternity as a ‘social function’ and the family responsibilities for men and women, are the key for achieve the gender equality on employment, and the necessary reconciliation of work and family life. We cannot forget that women’s economic empowerment shows that gender equality can contribute to advancing economies and sustainable development:

‘Women can make enormous contributions to economies, whether in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home (…) Gender discrimination means women often end up in insecure, low-wage jobs, and constitute a small minority of those in senior positions. It curtails access to economic assets such as land and loans. It limits participation in shaping economic and social policies. And, because women perform the bulk of household work, they often have little time left to pursue economic opportunities.’ (

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