Eunice Yung’s pregnancy means it’s time to discuss maternity leave for Hong Kong lawmakers

Alice Wu says that with the upcoming addition to legislator Eunice Yung’s family, the Legislative Council needs to address its lack of formal leave time for new parents, but do so in an appropriate way – pregnancy is not an illness and shouldn’t be treated like one

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2018, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 August, 2018, 6:50pm

Just as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was returning to work from six weeks of maternity leave, “double happiness” news for Hong Kong’s lawmaker Eunice Yung Hoi-yan made the headlines. Wedding bells and the unrefuted reports that she’s pregnant make Yung the first in the city to marry and possibly give birth while holding a seat in the Legislative Council.

It’s certainly news in Hong Kong, a place we would like to believe is cosmopolitan and progressive but isn’t. If anything, women’s representation in Legco has regressed — from 18 per cent in 2008, to 15.7 in 2012 and now 14.7.

Yung should be congratulated and commended for her courage. That her next several months will be challenging and life-transforming is an understatement. And Yung won’t need What to Expect When You’re Expecting to know that her impending marriage and family life will be played out very publicly, and will invite even more unsolicited comments, advice and criticism.

It may be surprising to know that our lawmakers are not entitled to maternity leave, because as this paper’s report on Yung explained, lawmakers in Hong Kong are “officially regarded as serving a public duty and not employed by the legislature”.

And speaking of unsolicited advice, it has been suggested that Yung can take leave with full pay and allowance, like the late rural leader Lau Wong-fat, who went on leave when he was too ill to attend Legco meetings in 2015 and 2016. This may have been well-intended, but the parallel ignores the fact that while being pregnant may make many ill, pregnancy is not an illness.

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So, in addition to Yung’s wedding dress and growing baby bump, whether she takes maternity leave, and how she goes about taking it, will be a subject of scrutiny,

Female politicians do have it tougher than their male counterparts when it comes to the scrutiny the public seems to feel entitled to. Women in politics are more likely to be judged by their appearance and by their personal choices — career, marriage and family. Yung’s party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee could surely attest to that. Others across the political aisle would agree as well.

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But thanks to Yung, we already find ourselves in need of answering a very important question: whether we can, in the year 2018, still accept the principle that those serving a public duty should not be entitled to maternity leave. Our unquestioned acceptance of that will have detrimental social and political consequences.

That unquestioned acceptance would mean, at its core, our acceptance of the ridiculous notion that maternity is not compatible with public service. It is an acceptance that maternity somehow is incapacitating oneself in such a way that one cannot perform one’s duties, which equates to the dereliction of duty. These are at the very heart of the very real struggles that women who find themselves juggling their career and family face.

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Look no further than to Japan, where abuse thrown at pregnant lawmakers remains rampant. Comments like “I have doubts about you getting pregnant while you are still serving in office”, “You should quit for the time being”, “This is why female lawmakers are a problem” and “You’re done as a politician” are still common in the 21st century.

And for taking maternity leave, Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward Assemblywoman Hiromi Suzuki found herself on the receiving end of the “traitor” label.

But as outrageous as things are in Japan, it’s almost doubly insulting for us to know that the Japanese Diet has since allowed maternity leave for its members in both chambers, and according to the Cabinet Office, all prefectures and assemblies in designed cities have maternity leave systems.

Without maternity leave for lawmakers, how are our lawmakers qualified, or duty-bound, to discuss and decide on the issue of statutory maternity and paternity leave?

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA