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Will SA Have More Parental Leave Soon?

| Legislation

Parental leave has been a trending topic this year, both globally and in South Africa. Corporations, especially global tech companies, have been making headlines as they announce expanded maternity and paternity leave.

From Virgin Management's announcement that parents can now receive up to a year of paid shared parental leave, to Netflix announcing a year of paid maternity and paternity leave.

"Worldwide, employers at progressive companies have recognised that keeping good staff is better for their bottom line than having to rehire regularly," says Jonathan Muthige, Director of Human Resources at South African grocery chain Pick n Pay which has offered one of the most expansive parental leave policies in the country. Pick n Pay, which employs nearly two times more women than men, gives both mothers and fathers a lot more parental leave than the law prescribes: Mothers get 11 months of paid maternity leave (including the four months provided by law) and fathers get eight days of paid paternity leave, but can also share the Pick n Pay supplemental maternity leave with mothers if both parents have worked at the company for more than eight months.

But most South African dads get no paid paternity leave and have nothing but three days of family responsibility leave to draw from (if it's not yet used up).

It was when Hendri Terblanche became a dad to premature twins who were in the hospital for many months that he realised the impossibility of this set-up for mothers, fathers and children, and so he started a petition calling for ten days of paternity leave in South Africa. Terblanche's petition, which garnered a lot of media attention, is expected to be reviewed by Parliament this year.

“Ten days for fathers is not enough," says Kerryn Rehse from South African NGO Mosaic, "But we need to start somewhere, and ten days is a good starting point - in terms of the needs of the mother and the child in those first days, especially after Caesarian deliveries which are very common in South Africa, in terms of the need for fathers and children to bond in the first moments of the child's life, and also in terms of what we can realistically achieve through Parliament at this juncture."

Seeing that more than half of South African youth are not living with their fathers, Mosaic, and partner, Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke), are working to address various factors that exacerbate absentee fatherhood, including structural ones, such as the lack of paternity leave. Recently, they developed a new campaign called 1000-100-10.

"Coupled with 10 days of paternity leave, we are calling for 100 days of additional leave for caregiving for each parent in the first 1,000 days," says Wessel van den Berg, Child Rights and Positive Parenting Portfolio Manager at Sonke, "This is in addition to the maternity leave already existing."

The first 1,000 days is generally defined as the term of pregnancy and the child's first two years of life and is a common focus area globally for early childhood development.

Dr. Elmarie Malek, a paediatrician who sits on the Western Cape Department of Health Provincial Clinical Governance Committee for Child and Newborn Health points to a 2014 study from UNICEF: Building Better Brains: New Frontiers in Early Childhood Development. It says, "200 million children under the age of five are not achieving their developmental potential because of multiple adversities -- marked by the lack of adequate nutrition, poor health and stimulating, nurturing, responsive, and safe environments." With studies like this in mind the Western Cape Government has formed a working group to promote safe and healthy children, on which Malek sits.

Malek supports the idea of expanding parental leave, and says it is one of a number of support measures that contribute to increasing the emotional availability of the parents to their infant, fostering healthy parent-infant attachment. "Baby needs engaging interaction with the primary caregiver," she says.

Rehse says that despite all this evidence, South African lawmakers are not moving quickly enough. She says that Mosaic and Sonke will now seek to complete a costing of their proposed parental leave model, and will also engage South African workers' unions in their advocacy.

Meanwhile, their model has had big impact in the Netherlands. Rutgers - a Dutch organization - presented the 1000-100-10 model at the Dutch launch of the first ever State of the World's Fathers report in June. Ilze Smit, Rutgers' Advocacy Officer, says the media ran with this concept, and a big parenting magazine collected more than forty thousand signatures in favour of the model, enough to put it on the Dutch government's agenda.

Smit says Dutch Minister Asscher quickly went from supportive in theory but resistant in practice, to explicitly supporting paternity leave expansion. In fact, the Dutch government just announced last month that they will include five paid days of paternity leave (three more than is currently paid) in their next budget.

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