Maternity Leave Policies in the Developing World

Access to paid leave following the birth of a child is a fundamental element of ensuring that childbirth does not come at the expense of new mothers having to compromise their employment, their health, or the critical early stages of their child’s development. Today, nearly all of the world’s low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) provide access to paid maternity leave. Despite great progress over the last two decades, many countries still fall short of meeting international standards of minimum leave duration. Using data drawn from MACHEquity’s policy databases, which feature longitudinal data on maternity leave policies dating back to 1995 in 121 LMICs, we’ve examined the current state of maternity leave policies around the world and policy changes over time.

Maternity Leave
Paid Maternity Leave Introduced, 1995-2013
Sierra Leone2002

Maternity Leave Provided in Nearly All Countries

In 1995, only seven out of the 121 countries countries included in our sample had not established paid maternity leave; by 2013, only one country – Suriname – still did not provide paid leave for mothers following childbirth.


Among LMICs, the duration of paid maternity leave varied significantly. In 2013, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro each provided 52 weeks of paid leave, whereas in Swaziland leave was limited to only 2 weeks.

Albania, Montenegro, B-H
Mean Duration

In 2013, the mean duration of paid maternity leave across all countries was 14.2 weeks - an increase from 12.2 weeks in 1995. On average, leave was longest in countries in Europe and Central Asia (25.3 weeks), and shortest in the Middle East and North Africa (10.1 weeks). Across income groupings leave was, on average, longest in upper-middle income countries (15 weeks), and shortest in low-income countries (11.9 weeks).

Mean Duration, by Region, 2013 (weeks)
Middle East & North Africa10.1
South Asia11.1
Sub-Saharan Africa12.7
East Asia and Pacific13.0
Europe & Central Asia25.3

Most Countries Do Not Meet International Standards ...

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maternity Protection Convention (no. 183), adopted in 2000, established a guiding standard of 14 weeks’ maternity leave. At the time this standard was established, only 40 (35.4%) of the countries in our sample were providing it. By 2013, 54 countries (44.6%) had met this standard. Although more than half of the world’s LMICs are still to meet the standard established by the Maternity Protection Convention, 2000, it should be noted that most of these countries did meet the previous ILO Convention (no. 103) standard of 12 weeks maternity leave, established in 1952. In 96 countries, or 79.3% of those in our sample, paid maternity leave is provided for at least 12 weeks.

Maternity Leave Duration
ML FTE-weeks, By Income Group
ML FTE-weeks, By Region

... But Improvements Have Been Made

Looking only at leave duration does not adequately capture the full scope of maternity leave benefits. For a more complete measure of maternity leave policies it is important to also account for the amount that is paid out. This is achieved by considering the wage replacement rate used in combination with leave duration, thus determining the total benefit provided in full-time equivalent (FTE) weeks. For example, if leave is provided for a duration of 26 weeks at a rate of 50% of the recipient’s usual wage, the total benefit is equal to 13 FTE weeks.

Looking at paid maternity leave in terms of FTE weeks, we find that, between 1995 and 2013, the mean benefit across all countries increased from 10.6 to 12.8 FTE weeks. The average maternity leave benefit increased among all income and regional groupings, with the largest increases having occurred in upper middle-income countries and Europe and Central Asia, and the smallest increases having been made in low-income countries and the Americas. The Middle-East and North Africashows the greatest proportional growth in maternity leave measured in average FTE weeks, an increase of 49.3% between 1995 and 2013.

Impact on Unemployment Among Women

As previously noted, six countries introduced paid maternity leave during the period between 1995 and 2013. Of these six countries, data on unemployment rates is available for all but one (Samoa). In three of these five countries (Bhutan, Lesotho, and Qatar) unemployment among female labour force participants dropped sharply immediately following the implementation of paid maternity leave. In the four years following implementation, unemployment among female workers dropped from 5.8% to 2.5% in Bhutan, from 44.8% to 28.5% in Lesotho, and from 7.3% to 2.5% in Qatar. In each of these three countries, unemployment among females had previously been significantly higher than that of males. However, with the introduction of maternity leave the unemployment gap between genders was notably diminished.

Following the introduction of maternity leave in Malawi and Sierra Leone, however, unemployment among female workers remained consistent with previously recorded levels.

ML FTE-weeks, By Income Group

About the Data

In order to better understand the current state of maternity leave policies around the world, how these policies have changed over time, and the effects of these changes, the MACHEquity team at McGill University has collected longitudinal data on maternity leave, and several other policy areas, dating back to 1995 in most low and middle-income countries in the world. These data have now been made available for public use through the recently launched MACHEquity Data Dashboards, an interactive data visualization tool which enables users to explore, analyze, and download the data contained within MACHEquity’s longitudinal policy databases, alongside supplementary data drawn from the World Bank's World Development Indicators (WDI) database.

All of the data used in this post, and more, are included in the MACHEquity Minimum Wage Data Dashboards. To begin exploring the Data Dashboards for yourself, please click here, or select from the options in the menu below.