Self-employed workers and their partners will enjoy better social protection - including the right to maternity leave for the first time - under new legislation endorsed by EU governments.The Directive on self-employed workers and assisting spouses repeals and replaces an earlier law and improves the social protection rights of millions of women in the labour market, boosting female entrepreneurship, the European Commission said in a media statement. At present, women represent only one in three entrepreneurs."This new law makes real improvements to the rights of self-employed workers and their partners, in particular women," the statement quoted Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship and Vice-President of the European Commission, as saying."It will help them to better balance work and family life and encourage more women to become entrepreneurs - which is good for the economy too."The legislation, agreed with the European Parliament on May 2010 and endorsed by EU member states, considerably improves the protection of women self-employed workers and assisting spouses in case of maternity or motherhood, the media statement said.It will provide equivalent access to maternity leave as for employees, but on a voluntary basis. At EU level, this is the first time a maternity allowance has been granted to self-employed workers.The new rules will also serve to promote entrepreneurship in general and among women in particular, the statement said. There is a currently a major gender gap in this area - only 30 per cent of entrepreneurs in Europe are women.Finally, the provision on social protection for assisting spouses and life partners (recognised as such in national law) is also a considerable improvement from the 1986 Directive, according to the statement.They will have the right to social security coverage (such as pensions) on an equal basis as formal self-employed workers. This will help to provide a stronger social safety net and to stop women from falling into poverty.The EU Council of Ministers is now expected to formally adopt the legislation on June 24 2010. EU countries will then have two years to introduce it into national law. Where justified by particular difficulties, they may have an additional period of two years to implement the provisions concerning assisting spouses.In a background note, the EC said that self-employment is a significant - albeit minority - form of employment in Europe, representing about 16 per cent of the active population.About 11 per cent of self-employed workers in Europe rely on the help of spouses and partners who work on an informal basis in small family businesses, such as a farm or a local doctor's practice.These assisting spouses are traditionally completely dependent on their self-employed partner. As such, they are at a high risk of poverty in the event of divorce, their partner's death or bankruptcy.As far as employees are concerned, the EU recently adopted a new directive improving the right to parental leave and the Commission's proposal for a revised directive on maternity leave is currently in first reading in the European Parliament.