MARKING “World Breastfeeding Week”, which took place August 1 - 7, Nigeria’s Enugu State government made an announcement that was warmly welcomed by its civil servants - the state approved six months maternity leave for nursing mothers and three weeks paternity leave for “nursing fathers”. This in a country where there is no provision entitling new fathers to paternity leave.
African countries are making significant gains in reducing the gap between men and women (Read: 17 simply astonishing facts about Africa’s gender gap). However, without addressing paternity leave they are not only leaving unaddressed the fundamental attitudes which question female equality in the workplace and at home, but also going against what could be wise choices in terms of business and a country’s economy.
After mining data, courtesy of the International Labour Organisation and the World Bank, it appeared that African governments do recognise the African woman’s right to maternity leave. Even though the continent lags behind the global average period of post-natal maternity of 3-4 months, all countries had made some allocation to maternity leave.
The country with the smallest amount of paid maternity leave was Tunisia, which only gives new mothers four weeks.
But while the rights of the mother, to some extent, are being recognised, the world over there is increasing recognition that men need time off too. This is because men are no longer the exclusive breadwinners, and are frequently expected to share the caring responsibilities with their partners, making paternity leave of equal importance.
US President, Barack Obama, said it very well in his state of the union address:
“It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is”
Paid leave could help increase the percentage of women in the work force, he said, and help middle-class families earn stable incomes.
Despite all this, the amount of legally allocated paternity leave in Africa is shocking.
Only 20 out of 54 countries in Africa have legislated for paid paternity leave and the amount of days is extremely low - averaging just 3 days. Mauritius tops the list with 5 days while Kenya is the star performer, giving two-week long paid paternity leave.
Some researchers argue that a lack of paternity leave does not make good economic sense.
A study conducted for the European Parliament for example found that paternity leave contributes to increasing fertility rates which counteract the increasing numbers of retired employees, that children who are well cared for in their early life are less likely to suffer health problems that society would have to pay for later on, and that leave for both parents can “reduce unemployment through cross-training and can help individuals cope with increasing demands in work and life.”
Women back to work
Another particularly strong case for paternity leave is that it encourages women to go back to work - with studies showing that more mothers returned to employment later and went on to work more hours and earn higher wages.
Bear in mind that a recent study by KPMG found that recruiting and training new employees to replace women who do not stay in the workforce after having a baby costs global businesses $47 billion every year.
Going back to work can in part be attributed to a greater sense of responsibility by the man. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that “a fathers’ leave, father’s involvement and child development are related. Fathers who take leave, especially those taking two weeks or more, are more likely to carry out childcare related activities when children are young.”
The study also stated that it found “some evidence that children with highly involved fathers tend to perform better in terms of cognitive test scores” - making them potentially more economically valuable in the future.
Parental leave policy can also greatly contribute to gender equality, but it can also have the opposite effect, if restricted to mothers only. If men were to receive similar leave benefits, then the perceived added “cost” of hiring women and potential mothers disappears. This is the most direct way to empower women in the workplace - by removing any sources of bias or prejudice that might exist in hiring them - and in turn ensure that as much of a population is productive as possible.
Good business sense
Fortunately the decisions on paternity leave don’t solely rest with the state. Businesses across the world are also increasingly recognising the importance of paternity leave. Accepting that while there may be short-term costs in covering employees who are gone, the long-term benefits of higher retention and productivity as well as the ability to attract top talent makes up for it.
These companies include: Virgin gives new fathers, who have worked for the company for over four years, a full year of paternity leave, Google gives all new fathers 12 weeks of paid parental leave or 18 if the father is the primary caregiver, Facebook offers 17 weeks, Yahoo offers up to eight weeks paid leave for any Yahoo employee that has a new child and PricewaterhouseCoopers offer six weeks of leave.