By Jen Thorpe
When two people decide to have a child, is it fair that one of those people gets more paid time away from work to bond with that child? Is it also fair that this situates parental responsibility firmly in the hands of the parent with more leave?
In South Africa, women are given up to four months paid/unpaid maternity leave when they fall pregnant. Women make up around 38% of the formal work force (though, as we know much of the work women do in South Africa is part of the informal economy, so this number is therefore an underestimation of the amount that women actually contribute to the economy), and are entitled to these four months by law. This time allows them to rest and prepare for the actual act of child-birth, and then allows them time to recover and bond with their child.
The Basic Conditions of Employment Act has the following to say about maternity leave:
Workers may take maternity leave 1 month before their due date, or earlier or later as agreed or required for health reasons. Workers may not go back to work within 6 weeks after the birth unless their doctor or midwife says it is safe. Based on Legislation in Section 25, of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act
However for men in South Africa, the law only provides for three days paid family responsibility leave (Section 27 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act). It makes no real mention of ‘paternity leave’ at all. This means that if a family member passes away, or a familial emergency occurs in the same year that these three days of paid leave have been taken, the man cannot ask for these as paid family responsibility leave.
Whilst we as feminists and women should certainly appreciate and be glad that we have the opportunity to keep our jobs whilst having a baby, we need to recognise that something is amiss here, and that the legislation we have at present is starving fathers of the opportunity to fully engage with their children when they are at their youngest, and is setting a precedent that places the psychological and physical burden of child raising firmly with women. The legislation that we have places no pressure on employers to recognise that men should be equally entitled to spend time with their newborn child, or to take responsibility from the very beginning for raising the child.
In 2009, the Commission on the Status of Women held their annual meeting with a focus on shared responsibilities between parents, particularly in the light of the HIV/AIDS infection rates in the developing world. The health minister at that time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, called for a change in the law relating to paternity leave in order to recognise that the country was under pressure to empower women, and that men needed to take responsibility for child raising.
“We must encourage family friendly policies… which will encourage a paradigm shift in that employees of both sexes are given the same opportunities to organise their family and work responsibilities,” she said.
She was quite right. It is both sexist and unfair to assume that men do not want to spend those first weeks with their child, and sexist to assume that women do.
Overseas, countries such as Norway (men get 10 weeks paternity leave) and Italy (men get 13 weeks) have provided men with the opportunity to balance their economic responsibilities to the state, with the responsibilities of developing a home. Is it perhaps that the South African state has chosen the economic value of men’s contribution in the formal economy over the responsibility of men to contribute to the development of the next generation of workers?
This limit that is set by the law stereotypes men and women before they have even had the opportunity to become parents. It assumes that women are better primary care givers than men, and that men are more economically important, or that men prefer their economic responsibilities to their familial ones. It also assumes that mothers will be better at raising children than fathers, which could negatively influence good dad’s chances of getting custody of their children in a divorce. These assumptions, and this legislation, has a very real impact on the way that men and women are treated in society, and the assumptions that society makes about what men and women are capable of.
We must recognise that both mothers and fathers have a shared responsibility for developing their children, and that allowing men to bond with newborns, and to take on some of that responsibility is an important step in the recreation of a South African masculinity in which it is acceptable for men to be good fathers, and to be involved in families in a way that steps outside the ‘man as strong’, ‘man as breadwinner’ trope. In addition, we need to support women in their choices to become breadwinners, and recognise that allowing men to have time off will better allow women to recover from the physical strain of child-birth, and will help to share the load in the first few months of a child’s life which will help women to sleep better, live better, and return to their jobs feeling restored rather than flattened.
I think it’s time to change laws that box men and women into narrow categories of parenthood. And if we can’t change the law, then lets start having these conversations with our employers, and encouraging them to develop policies that recognise that children are every parent’s responsibility.