Parental leave bill a step in the right direction

  • Jessika Ferrari
  • Wessel Van Den Berg

South Africa has taken another step in the right direction towards more gender equality.

A Private Members Bill calling for paternity leave for new fathers was presented in Parliament last month by African Christian Democratic Party member of Parliament Cheryllyn Dudley. At first glance, the critics of paternity leave may argue that it gives fathers more time off work, or a paid holiday that will not be used to care for their children. However, evidence from around the world shows that this is in fact not the case.

Paid paternity leave is one of the key recommendations made by the 2015 State of the World’s Fathers report to achieve gender equality.

Paternity leave is one of the most important steps policymakers can take to improve women’s access to economic opportunity.

So far, our policies on childcare are mostly aimed at mothers, perpetuating the false notion that only women are able to provide good care. This puts women in the unfavourable position of holding the baby and keeping the bread on the table.

Consequently, a number of challenges arise: People act in response to the environment around them and these policies create a society where men get let off the hook, and do not step in and share the unpaid care work at home. The three days of family responsibility leave that men get are not specific to parenting, and the care for babies still remains a mother’s responsibility. In addition, fathers in South Africa increasingly live separately from their children, and mostly do not contribute to the household income.

Paternity leave would obviously apply mostly to the minority of households where parents live together, and both work. Even in this small sample, the current leave model places an unequal burden of work on mothers. Since only the mother gets maternity leave, she ends up doing most of the child-care work.

If men get the opportunity to do the same care work, it would allow mothers to return to the workplace sooner, and also create an opportunity for a vital emotional bonding time between father and child. (By the way, maternity leave can also improve in South Africa in a variety of ways – like allowing for six months of breastfeeding, rather than only four, and by cutting the red tape mothers need to negotiate to actually get the leave.)

It’s clear from several studies around the world that this early time in a child’s life is the right moment to connect a father to a child – it bodes well for a lifelong connection, regardless of the parents being together or apart. Therefore, paternity leave would be a crucial stitch in sewing our families together.

The bill proposed is a very encouraging step forward. A few members of Parliament raised some important questions, and in the media as often happens the most sensational took wing – “Paternity leave for one-night stands?” read one headline.

The one-night stand image is a useful media device, but it is also a classic straw man – an emotional diversion from the real argument. The real decision policymakers face is whether paternity leave would harm or benefit women, men and children economically and emotionally in South Africa.

The overwhelming evidence from across the world shows that it would hold more benefits than harm. To respond to the one-night stand point: naming a problem should not cancel attempts at solutions.

One-night stands, or weak family planning, avoiding contraceptives and low responsibility by men should not cancel the opportunity to counter these. They should be incorporated as one of the many challenges that a feasible parental leave policy should be able to respond to.

Furthermore, let us not fall into a retrogressive mindset by putting the responsibility of an unplanned pregnancy solely on the woman. Even if a child is born out of a one-night stand, the man must take up his duties as a father and be part of the child’s life.

South Africa is behind several other countries in Africa in terms of leave for fathers – for example in Kenya, fathers have two weeks available for contributing to the unpaid care at home.

It is unfortunate that the ACDP’s approach does not seem to be supportive of same-sex parenting, since we so desperately need policies that are responsive to the diversity of families in South Africa. In addition to same-sex parenting, the majority of families in South Africa are also extended, networked, and far from the myth of the nuclear family of mom, dad, two-and-a-half children and a dog.

Paternity leave may just be a way to remind the fathers in these networks that they also have work to do, with their children at home.