The birth of paternity leave

February 9, 2020

The Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill is a welcome development. It reminds us that the role of the law is to push society to think differently

It’s a brand new beginning in our part of the world. It could lead to long-lasting benefits to family life – by helping fathers be better babas, mothers happier mamas, and children in good care. So, shall we allow our excitement to grow till the lower house decides its fate?

The case in point is the Senate’s newly-passed bill on maternity and paternity leave. Last month, the upper house passed the Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill, 2018, which makes it mandatory for employers to grant six-month paid maternity and three-month paid paternity leave to employees in the public as well as the private sector – however, only in the federal capital territory. It also allows a father to avail one-month unpaid leave “from their leave account”.

Although the provision of maternity leave exists in the legal framework of Pakistan, this proposed law is likely to further strengthen the mothers’ role in childrearing. But we’ll keep maternity leave aside for now, and instead focus on a significant part of the proposed legislation – that it allows fathers to take up to three months of paid leave at the birth of their babies.

Let’s face it, it’s a moment for young parents to celebrate.

Can you picture in your mind a father changing his newborn’s diaper, staying up all night to ease his colicky baby, getting comfortable with the tiny little person that he is responsible for… Imagine a change in perception around fatherhood.

And imagine what this change may mean for a working mother… We know it is she who works flexible hours, she decides not to go for promotion, she stays at home when the child is ill. Inevitably it is the mother, much more than the father, who is expected to juggle between career and childcare. And easily, figures indicating lopsided participation in workforce and gender gaps can be traced back to her childcare responsibilities.

Though women constitute 49 percent of Pakistan’s population, they comprise only 21.9 percent of the labour force. Their employment-to-population ratio is 20.9 percent. The gender gap stands at 23.7 percent with only 4.2 percent women holding senior or middle management positions.

Even when young women are willing to push the boundaries and defy the stereotypes to actively participate in the formal workforce, they are unable to find employment after being asked intrusive questions about family planning if their status is married.

“The proposed bill hopes to bring about a much welcome change,” says advocate Sahar Bandial. “Patriarchal notions of gender roles and relationships are entrenched in our society. The law has to challenge these notions, and push society to think differently. If we wait for a change in social norms/societal structure, we may end up waiting in perpetuity,” she adds.

So, if the proposed law can somehow ensure that workplace inflexibility stops being a women’s issue, that’ll only be a good thing. It may actually lead to greater benefits. A study in Spain found that parents who received paid paternity leave took longer to have another child and men’s desire for more children dropped.

According to the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Public Economics by González and Lídia Farré, professors from Spain’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra and University of Barcelona, respectively, the introduction of paid paternity leave has led to delays in fertility for eligible Spanish couples, with many waiting longer to have additional children. Also, the reform made men drop their desired number of children.

This is not a negative outcome. Pakistan could learn a lesson from Spain. This progressive proposal to introduce paternity leave in Pakistan may change the way young couples perceive fertility. They can focus on having fewer children and tending to their needs better.

Critics may argue that paternity leave is unnecessary in a country where new parents have a huge support system within family and in domestic help. Adil has two kids. His wife went to her mother’s house (maikay) after the birth of their first baby. “There was no need for me to take leave.” He took a month off from work when his second child was born – because it would’ve been very inconvenient to shift their firstborn to his nani’s house along with the expecting mother. “I had to be a hands-on dad as ours is a nuclear setup. The experience was completely different.”

Adil is the only one I’ve seen take paternity leave. Nuclear families are a reality now. In many cases, a preferred choice.

Perhaps, its time the government steps in to reduce stigmas associated with fathers making babies a priority. “It may just become like the minimum wage law. It exists on paper but not really implemented,”says Fahd Ali, economist and father to a two-year-old. While he argues that the way the leave is implemented can be negotiated, he is convinced that paternity leave should be mandatory and all new fathers must take time off to spend with their new-born.

The sooner young couples learn to live equal roles the better it will be for their careers and childrearing.

Equality at home will achieve equality in society.

Just in: Finland’s government led by 34-year-old Prime Minister Sanna Marin equalized family leave by granting seven months of paid leave to each parent. The new policy is designed to be gender neutral and will come into effect by fall 2021. The world is moving on, its time for Pakistan to catch up.

The writer is staff member

Paternity leave: Senate bill a ray of hope for Pakistani parents