PhD dissertation recommendations by gender equality advocate and School of Law academic Dr Janine Hicks have found their way into proposed law reform on access to maternity benefits for self-employed women in the informal economy.
Hicks, who worked on her thesis research while she was leader on a SA Law Reform Commission project committee, says the implications of material support, particularly for the most marginalised of working women, and the health and development of their children, are immense.
‘Our discussion paper is currently out for consultation, whereupon our final recommendations will be considered by the SA Law Reform Commission and then Cabinet. If our recommendations are accepted, self-employed women, including those in the informal economy, will be able to contribute to the Unemployed Insurance Fund (UIF), and be entitled to four months paid maternity leave, just like all other workers,’ said Hicks.
The project arose during 2009, while Hicks was serving as a Commissioner with the Commission for Gender Equality. The Commission received a complaint from a self-employed, professional woman who alleged that the maternity benefits regime in South Africa discriminated against her by excluding her from contributing to the social security mechanism of the UIF. Because the woman did not meet the narrow definition of “employee”, she was not able to access paid maternity leave after the birth of her child.
‘As the Commission, we investigated the legal basis and implications of the complaint and quickly realised that the issue had a devastating impact on the reproductive health rights and economic participation of many self-employed women, predominantly those working in the informal economy, such as street traders, waste pickers, hair salon owners, and the like,’ said Hicks.
She added that as part of their campaign on this issue, the Commission worked very successfully with mobilised and organised structures of labour, such as the South African Self-Employed Women’s Association (SASEWA) and COSATU, to bring this issue to the attention of policy makers, and effect change to the country’s maternity benefits regime.
‘Through this partnership, and our submissions to Parliament and the Departments of Labour and Justice, we succeeded in securing government’s recognition that there is in fact a gap in our maternity benefits regime. The SA Law Reform Commission accordingly established Project 143 to drive the legal and consultative process necessary to develop recommendations for law reform to address this shortcoming,’ said Hicks.
Hicks says graduating with a PhD is a very significant achievement for her as it is a culmination of years of advocacy and research, and embodies her professional work from activism to the academy.
‘When I was appointed as a lecturer in the School of Law in 2017, we were obliged to be on track towards obtaining a PhD. It became obvious that I was in a privileged position to work with this issue and all the material I had access to, and write up my thesis. I was fortunate to have an exacting and encouraging supervisor, Professor Managay Reddi, who pushed me and brought out my best work. I also have two very supportive and appreciative sons, who are proud of my work and carry their weight in our home,’ she said.
Words: Thandiwe Jumo