Paternity leave or quarantine for men?
While the country moves from crisis to crisis, and attention has been diverted yet again to important matters of State and politics, a little bit of news passed us by. That was Minister of Womens Affairs, Sumedha Jayasenas information to Parliament on the 18th of June that the government plans to grant paternity leave to male spouses.
The Daily News saw fit to let us have the information on its front page, "In Parliament" column, on the 19th of June. Under the intriguing heading "On Maternity Leave for Hubbies", the lobby Correspondent noted for our benefit that there were blushes and titters in the house. We wonder who was blushing and who was tittering, and for Gods sake, why was Paternity leave a blushing matter? We were also informed that UNP members seized on the opportunity to have some fun with A. H. M. Azwer leading the way with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. What the lobby correspondent perceived as fun appeared to us as a good old-fashioned, not at all funny session of a bunch of male chauvinistic MPs bullying a woman minister. Minister Jayasena had gone on to explain that her ministry was planning to grant five days of leave to male spouses so that they could be on hand to help with post-natal care.
The only comment to this momentous and laudable piece of news that the lobby correspondent cared to pick up was the half-witted view of A. H. M. Azwer that husbands should be placed in quarantine! We wonder if he meant husbands should be quarantined before they impregnate their wives (which might be convenient for some wives) or whether they should be quarantined after the birth of their children (which of-course would be convenient to most husbands). Unlike Mr. Azwer, we are not that biased against husbands, many of whom are wonderful fathers and would appreciate some paternity leave.
However some of our male MPs could certainly do with long term if not permanent quarantine far removed from the rest of society. The lobby correspondent does not enlighten us and we have no access to a Hansard as yet, to find out if any other honourable representative of the people saw fit to support Minister Jayasena in a most responsible and timely endeavour. It should have been a proud day for all men and women in Parliament. The proposal should have been enthusiastically supported. The lobby correspondents supposedly humorous but actually quite patriarchal and sexist piece of reporting unfortunately didnt get beyond the titters.
Responsibility of parenting
The Minister of Womens Affairs was not pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The proposal in Parliament stemmed from a series of discussions with Ministerial, inter Ministerial, Departmental and other colleagues. These discussions took seriously the responsibility of both men and women in the important task of parenting. As in Parliament, the Minister had an uphill task persuading her colleagues of the need for paternity leave. Some men thought that child bearing was just a matter of course and women had nothing much to attend to afterwards except breastfeeding the baby from time to time! They obviously had never come across soiled nappies or peevish babies to say nothing of homes that needed tidying and food that need preparing plus the other innumerable household tasks and responsibilities that dont unfortunately disappear just because a baby is born.
Others were concerned that we had too many holidays and paternity leave would be adding disproportionately to them. They probably expected all men to promptly get their wives pregnant just to enjoy an extra five holidays. Still others were concerned that husbands and wives who worked at the same establishment would cause chaos by being absent at the same time! Some men felt that a five-day holiday would be too much of a drain on productivity but they wouldnt mind being paid an extra five days wage, thank you very much!! All this of-course, has to do with the question of attitudes - attitudes on the responsibility of parenting and attitudes on the sexual division of labour and the role of women and men in the home and in society.
What is paternity leave?
Paternity leave is the common name for the time a father takes off work at the birth or adoption of a child. This leave may be paid or unpaid, depending on national legislation or workplace policy.
Paternity leave is a very recent concept. Before 1993, paternity leave was virtually unheard of in the USA. No federal laws guaranteed that men could take time off after the birth of a child without losing their job. Leave policies that existed in the USA before 1993 were created by individual companies for their employees. All that changed when Donna Lenhoff, general counsel of the Womens Legal Defense Fund, now the National Partnership for Women and Families, drafted the first version of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The organization fought hard for the bills passage and in 1993 Congress approved it. The FMLA became the first bill President Clinton signed into law. Since then an estimated 20 million working Americans have taken advantage of family or medical leave.
However paternity leave still remains a greatly underutilized, part of the law in the USA. Nevertheless more than two-thirds of Americans under 40 say that within the next ten years theyll want to take family leave, and 90 percent think employers and the government should do more to promote family-friendly work policies. Unfortunately, at the level of corporate management a significant percentage think that it is unreasonable for a man to take off after the birth of a child.
Under European legislation, fathers are entitled to 13 weeks of unpaid paternity leave spread out over the first five years of a childs life.
However in Britain, for example paternity leave is still not the norm in the workplace, and organisations campaigning for the rights of the family and children wanted Prime Minister Tony Blair to set an example by utilizing paternity leave options at the birth of his son last year.
In March 2001 the Australian Federal Government supported the extension of parental leave rights to 2.5 million casual workers - more than a quarter of the workforce, and said that the time had come to extend parental leave rights to the entire workforce. The changes would extend the right to 12 months unpaid maternity or paternity leave to all casual workers who have had a year or more of regular employment with the same employer.
Legislating Paternity Leave: Whos Responsible for Childcare?
Who do we think should be responsible for childrearing? women? men? both? Or is it a social responsibility? Do we have a view? Social practice and traditional family patterns, in countries like Sri Lanka, reinforces the role of women as childcare providers, to the point of entrenching the notion that women must be responsible for activities in the private sphere (home) while men were responsible for activities in the public sphere. This, ofcourse no longer reflects reality. Hundreds and thousands of women work outside the home and straddle their responsibilities within the home with those outside of it. Men on the other hand have not made an easy transition to taking on the role of caregivers in the home. This is why paternity leave becomes a contentious and even threatening issue.
Dr. Chiu Man-Jung, Professor of Law at Hong Kongs City University, points out that different countries and regions have different concepts of childcare. He says that China places great emphasis on the notion of family and recognizes childcare as the joint responsibility of men and women. So, for example, Chinas divorce law states that a man may not seek a divorce within one year of a womans pregnancy and delivery. However, although the Peoples Republic of China views childrearing as the joint responsibility of men and women, its laws do not provide for across-the-board paternity leave.
Paternity leave is a multifaceted issue, touching on human rights, sexual equality, labour benefits, and other areas. It is the right of any parent to look after his or her children and for these reasons, we should support the granting of paternity leave to men. Still other supporters of paternity leave believe that if men participate in the job of caring for their children from the time of birth, then they will be more likely to involve themselves in an ongoing role as caregiver, with the ultimate result that the old notion of women carrying the sole responsibility for matters within the home will be dispensed with.
The Minister of Womens Affairs is only asking for five days of leave. This is far from excessive. It is a first step to get parents and society used to the concept of paternity leave and the concept of fathers actively sharing in the care of their children. We as Sri Lankans have been long proud of commendable achievements such as low maternal and infant mortality, low rates of fertility, late marriage for women coupled with high life expectancy. Women also enjoy high rates of literacy, and free education has enabled women to record extremely good rates of participation in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Large numbers of women are employed outside the home and continue to seek wage employment and financial independence. This is all the more reason why Sri Lankans can and should set a standard internationally as one of the first countries in the developing world to extend paternity leave to men.
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