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Our working mothers need support more than early retirement

Providing a system where a mother can balance work and, not just family, her role in society is rather more than just walking away with a pension after 15 years.

An everyday morning tragedy is told by a mother: "I don't know how he knows when to wake up right on time, even when he is fast asleep. He stands there in front of the door in tears, using everything that he has to not to let me walk out of the door."

A friend of my aunt's was describing her pain at leaving her son to go to work. She is a committed and successful woman of 33 with three children who works for the government. Her youngest boy is now a year old. She and her husband live and work in Abu Dhabi - both sets of relatives live in the Northern Emirates, so they don't have the support of an extended family. "If it wasn't for paying the instalments on the house, I would have resigned at once," she says.

Earlier this week, a committee of the Federal National Council called for a change in the law that would give women the option to retire after working for 15 years. The argument that women spend too much time at work and not enough with their families is only one step towards solving this dilemma. What women need is not to be sent back to their homes and give up their careers. The solution is to change the current culture of work, to let mothers balance the demands of work and home. Women need a system that supports all aspects of their lives and that does not force them to choose between succeeding in one sphere and failing in the other.

Sheikh Zayed once said: "The working woman deserves every recognition, but the main duty she should focus on is home. The house is her kingdom and she should shoulder the responsibility of being a mother and a wife in the first place."

Balancing these two roles places huge pressure on local women, particularly when they are working mothers. We hear this from women themselves - in majlises, internet forums, radio talk shows and articles in the Arabic press - often commenting on the number of women resigning from their jobs. Research shows that women make good workers. Committed and loyal, they give their best.

Sheihk Zayed encouraged women to educate themselves. They were asked to take their place in the workforce and they have done so - successfully. Buta woman has other crucial roles to play - as a daughter, sister, wife and mother. She needs to take care of the older people, from mother to grandmother, and bring together the younger generation for a pot of "chai haleeb" around Asar time; yet she must have the energy to absorb every opinion and question.

It seems we now expect women in the UAE to be superheroes, balancing eight to nine hours at work and then go back, not tired, and still be the pulse of her home. Is work really meant to consume 70 per cent of a woman's strength of the day?

Critics have said that allowing women to retire after such a short period in the workforce could adversely impact the economy, that it represents a poor return on education and experience to stop their careers so soon. Surely, a woman's career is not all of her life. It is not even the priority of her life. The national obligations of her role in society is greater than just the one area of labour. Providing a system where she can balance work and, not just family, her role in society is rather more than just walking away with a pension after 15 years.

Purely from an economic angle, it can be argued that it might actually be better for the economy to support balancing the two lives. Look at the number of times today's children need to be taken to the doctor compared with even 20 years ago. How much of this expense could be saved by simply giving mothers the chance to breast feed their children for two years. Research has shown that breast feeding is crucial for the health of both the mother and the child. After all, the Quran recommends this: "The mothers shall give such to their offspring for two whole years."

Here is another story, of a woman who lives in Khalifa bin Zayed city but who works near the Corniche. She returned to work after two months of maternity leave and was forced to wean her daughter four weeks later.

"The one hour that is given us at work does nothing," she complains. "To get back to my house takes around 30 minutes, and then coming back again, another 30 minutes. Never mind the time needed to pray, have lunch and drink some liquids to feed her." Recently, a friend's seven-month-old daughter was sick for a couple of days, but only when she took a day off and stayed with the baby at home did the child get better. "Without even medicine," my friend remarked. It is as if our babies' bodies say: "I need mama, not the maid."

It is also worth noting that a woman rushing to work is neglecting her duties as a mother of five to six children. What does this neglect cost society and the economy? What price shall we pay for a new generation that is ill-mannered and has destructive attitudes towards public property? If mothers had more time and energy to talk to their children about school, values, principles and history, this generation could perhaps serve their country better.

In the context of the local population, there is one final point to make. Recently, Emiratis were compared to Native Americans, the indigenous people who are now a small minority in their own land.

With some estimates suggesting that locals now make up less than 10 per cent of the population, this imbalance threatens our identity.

So every individual, man and woman, has a mission to support the pillar of our society: families. To be a supporting and content husband and wife, to bring to life a new generation, but more importantly to nurture their souls, bodies and minds.

Here is one thing that can be done. Just two months of maternity leave is far below international standards. In comparison, in Sweden each family with a newborn is allocated 480 days of paid leave. Usually, the first 60 days are taken by the mother, and the next 60 days are for the father to stay with the children. In the UAE, paternity leave is three days only. The first year of a child's life is crucial, a time during which he or she should get utmost care.

If we want our next generation to be aware, educated and connected to their roots, then the role of parents, especially mothers, is critical. In Islamic culture, it is said that the personality of a child is complete when he reaches the age of nine. And that what he observes in the early years determines how he is going to act as an adult.

In Britain, there is flexibility even after maternity leave is over. A mother has the option of a part-time job, working from home, and what they call half a job, where two people take on a single position and split the salary. We should be more adventurous in trying out what has succeeded in other countries.

The initiative of the National Child Care Centre Project, which aims to establish nurseries and crèches in Dubai government departments for working mothers, is something that all the emirates should copy. It is a project launched by Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, president of the Dubai Women Establishment, and wife of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE Minister of Presidential Affairs.

It is another step towards giving women the peace of mind that will let them to be even more productive in their jobs. It is time to move on from talking about what is such an obvious problem and its solutions and start putting into action something this country can easily achieve.

After shedding tears over her everyday pain, my aunt's friend found a way. And that was escaping through the back door, where she could still hear her boy, in the arms of the nanny, calling and looking for her. Then she would spend the next 20 minutes driving to work in tears, feeling helpless at a situation she was unable to change. Sadly, this is a common story.

Sheikh Zayed said: "The mother should not be distracted from her children, or rely on others in their upbringing. This is her responsibility." For my aunt's friend, there is still no solution - the tears of a one-year-old continue to be shed from behind a closed door.

Bushra Alkaff al Hashemi is a feature writer at The National. She is a young lady with an old soul and a graduate and a student in the masters program in Zayed University

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