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Paternity leave for dads serves societal interests

| Legislation

South Korea and Japan provide the most paid paternity leave for new dads — 52.6 weeks at 31% of pay, and 52 weeks at 58.4% of pay respectively — but in countries like this where childcare is considered the work of mothers, few men take advantage of it to bond with their children, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey.

The State of the World’s Fathers report explains that if men were encouraged and able to play a more significant role in the lives of their children, true gender equality could be achieved.

Wessel van den Berg of Sonke Gender Justice says: "Fathers are as biologically hard wired to provide care as mothers.… Fathers with close connections to their children live longer, have fewer health problems, are more productive and generally happier."

The involvement of fathers before, during and after the birth of a child has been shown to benefit maternal health behaviours, encouraging women’s use of maternal and newborn healthcare services, and increases fathers’ longer-term support and involvement in the lives of their children, the study found.

But women continue to spend between twice and 10 times longer than men caring for their offspring, despite women making up 40% of the formal global workforce and 50% of its food producers.

The regional director for Save the Children, David Wright, is forthright in declaring that gender equality requires "a revolution in the lives of men and boys, not just in Africa, but also all over the globe, including their full participation in domestic life".

Sweden first granted women maternity leave in 1901, and in the country today, 89% of fathers take the paternity leave they’re offered — two weeks following the birth of their child and an additional 16 months at 80% of pay (for either parent) up to the child’s eighth birthday.

While maternity leave is offered in nearly all countries throughout the world, only 92 of the 196 nationalities offer paternity leave.

In SA, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act allows "family responsibility leave" of three days, during each annual cycle, to workers who have completed four months of service. Some companies and individuals grant additional leave in the belief that new fathers perform better in their jobs when they are given more leave or flexibility when a baby is born.

"We believe that the Pick n Pay model is the best in the country and that we should (all) be striving for that," says Congress of South African Trade Unions gender forum chairwoman Sharon Daniels.

The retail chain offers mothers 11 months of maternity leave, nine of which are paid in full, while fathers get eight days’ paternity leave. "If the mother and father both work at Pick n Pay, they can share the mother’s leave allocation," says Daniels.

Makro and Woolworths offer their staff nine months’ paid maternity leave.

"One cannot argue against the obvious merits of a more equitable approach to parental leave, or the obvious systemic benefits of better parenting," says Lee Marcus of Marcus and Associates Attorneys in Cape Town. However, the debate was not only a societal and parenting one, but also a labour law issue. "Constitutional and equity imperatives are competing with the realities of an already overregulated and burdensome labour law regime in the country.

"It is far from ideal, but no matter how noble the cause, it cannot be ignored — the consequences are real. Against this backdrop, it may prove difficult to motivate for further legislated obligations to be placed on employers.

"It is likely that this will, for some time, remain a matter for negotiation between dads and their employers, either individually or collectively."

Economists caution that the lower taxes paid in SA compared with Scandinavian countries, compounded with the high unemployment rate and an economy that’s less productive than it could be, mitigate against an improvement in parental leave.

Financial manager Hendri Terblanche took issue with the Basic Conditions of Employment Act in November 2013 when his twins with wife Giselle were born prematurely.

While he acknowledged the cost for employers — R4,335.95 per birth, on the average income at the time of R9,396 for employed males aged 15 to 64 — he believed society would benefit from more generosity towards parents. After he campaigned for 10 days of paid paternity leave — approaching every member of Parliament, urging them to draft a bill for consideration by the National Assembly — the departments of Labour and Social Development were mandated to explore the feasibility.

Experts say that if fathers are more involved in rearing their children, it may lead to reduced crime in the next generation, better results in maths and science, a lower unemployment rate and a lower imprisonment rate — real benefits for the economy.

"But in the absence of legislative changes, perhaps the increased media attention and activism around this issue will give dads more impetus for engagement with their employers," says Marcus.

"All participants in the debate would do well to remember, however, that few (if any) changes to SA’s labour laws hold only benefits — there is always a cost ... an objective approach, without either rights-based or costs-based tunnel vision, is essential, because this debate will become a permanent fixture in our ongoing discourse."

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