Investing in the quality care of a child in the first thousand days of their life holds many long-term benefits for their development. (AFP)

Paying it forward: South Africa's law should give all fathers and adoptive parents paid parental leave

Wessel van den Berg
Getting parents more involved in childcare is good for a child’s health and prospects in life. South Africa needs to get with the programme.

COMMENT

In 2011 Douglas Newman-Valentine, a 28-year-old nursing lecturer, and his husband, Marlow, adopted a baby girl — and, as is usual for any new parent, needed to take time off work to care for her. Douglas’s employer, the University of Cape Town (UCT), took the progressive step of offering him four months’  paid paternity leave.

According to Marlow, UCT’s step allowed the couple to spend valuable time with their daughter: “During this time, we would take turns to have flesh-on-flesh contact with her. She would lie on our chests to aid the bonding process. Douglas would carry her in a kangaroo sling even while watering the garden. At night I would do the feeding and cradle her so that a firm bond could be established. Almost three years later, you can see that special bond between us.”

Douglas and his partner were lucky to have an understanding employer — other gay fathers have had to take legal action to gain the same benefits. Although South Africa’s labour law, including the  Basic Conditions of Employment Act, provides for same-sex marriage, it does not provide for same-sex parenting. And the inability of male same-sex parents to take leave to care for a new addition to their family is just one of the ways the current state of paid parental leave is failing children in South Africa.

With the intent to improve conditions for new parents and their children, the parliamentary portfolio committee on labour met in September to discuss a proposed labour law amendment Bill. The Bill suggests 10 days’ leave for new fathers and introduces specified leave for adoptive parents.

This is a solid start. But there are several ways in which the Basic Conditions of Employment Act can be improved to allow for better care of children. The system is failing children of same-sex male couples who aren’t as lucky as Douglas and Marlow, as well as adopted children and children of mothers who work full-time.

The law also discriminates against women: women’s participation in paid work has increased over the past few decades and men’s contribution to caregiving has not kept pace. Statistics South Africa's latest time-use survey published in 2013 shows that women do eight times as much domestic and childcare work as men do. Most mothers face the dual burden of being a breadwinner and a caregiver.

What needs to be done? First, to improve conditions for children of mothers who work full-time, leave for a primary caregiver should increase from the four months’ maternity leave currently offered to biological mothers to six months’ parental leave. Although the government has shown a forward-thinking approach in its investment in childcare facilities with the recent development of the early childhood development framework, placing very young children in care reduces valuable bonding time between parents and children.

Paid leave can be a way to get parents more involved in childcare. According to the World Health Organisation, children should be exclusively breast-fed for six months and  research from UCT's Children's Institute shows that investing in the quality care of a child in the first thousand days of their life holds many long-term benefits for their development.

It also reduces their future cost to the state. Children who receive high-quality care and healthy bonding and attachment in their first three years often do much better in the workplace and are less likely to require health services than children who do not have such care in their early years.

Adoptive parents and their children are also suffering as a result of the current leave policy. The only recourse adoptive parents have is for the adoptive mother to apply for normal maternity leave, but this requires the unabridged birth certificate of the adopted child, which can take up to three years to obtain.

Besides the delays and unnecessary red tape involved in receiving maternity leave benefits from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, the current framework only allows mothers maternity benefits for the first six months of the child’s life.

But where does this leave an adoptive parent whose child enters their life at this time or later? A simple amendment to the Act — to allow adoptive parents to qualify for parenting leave from the time the child is permanently placed with them — would streamline the adoption and care of such children.

Although it’s evident that paternity leave is imperative for same-sex male parents, women will benefit the most from men being offered time off to care for their children. Mothers who have just given birth are unlikely to cope single-handedly with the care work required to keep an infant safe and healthy.

If she’s had a Caesarean section, a new mother needs at least 10 days to recover before she can lift and carry a baby on her own. Most women depend on their families to help out, but if men received adequate paid leave, new fathers could step in and share the caregiving duties at this crucial time. This would also provide an all-important opportunity for fathers to connect emotionally to their children, thereby establishing a foundation for a lifetime connection.

South Africa is often viewed as a model for African development, yet we are behind our counterparts on the continent in this aspect. Kenya and Burundi offer 14 days, and Madagascar, Cameroon and several others offer 10 days’ leave for new fathers.

It’s time to amend the labour law to expand paid parenting leave to include fathers, adoptive parents and same-sex parents, and catch up with other countries in the region that are leading the way in caring for future generations. 

Wessel van den Berg is the child rights and positive parenting portfolio manager at Sonke
Gender Justice

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