By Kelly Dale and Morgan Mickle

Gender equality advocates across the world push for greater equality in policies and programs, in access to education and health, and in workplaces and the home. A policy that spans across almost all of these spaces is paternity leave. Paternity leave—defined by the ILO as paid or unpaid leave period –reserved for fathers in relation to childbirth or leave that can be used exclusively by fathers—allows men the opportunity to bond with their newborns and support their partner with childcare (or do it alone in the case of single-family households). Evidence shows that when men bond with a baby from the beginning, they are more likely to be present and involved throughout the child’s life, which has positive effects on children’s psychological health, self-esteem, and life-satisfaction in the long-term (UNICEF).

“Positive and meaningful interaction with mothers and fathers from the very beginning helps to shape children’s brain growth and development for life, making them healthier and happier, and increasing their ability to learn. It’s all of our responsibility to enable them to fill this role,” – UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore.

A 2018 study in Spain by Lídia Farré and Libertad González showed that offering two-weeks of paid paternity leave to men resulted in a longer interim between births (which we know can have positive repercussions for health, education, and gender equality). This shift in fertility may have been due to a perceived increase in the opportunity cost of an additional child or that men reported a desire for fewer children after taking paternity leave (which could possibly be due to their increased awareness of the costs of childrearing). Yet according to UNICEF, 90 million or two-thirds of the world’s children under 1 year old live in countries where their fathers are not entitled by law to any paid paternity leave. One of those countries is Antigua and Barbuda.

Last month we were in Antigua for a gender analysis with the USAID-funded ASSIST Project. Across our analysis, none of the men participating in any of the focus groups had received any paternity leave. This is normal for Antigua where there is no official government paternity leave but where paternity leave is often dependent on the employer and marriage status. According to focus group participants, if a man is married, his employer may grant him 7 to 10 days paternity leave but unmarried men do not receive the same benefit. However, rates of marriage are low and declining in Antigua—according to the most recent census, only 23% of all females over the age of 15 are married. These paternity policies—both national laws and company policies—set a pattern for decreased involvement of men in child care.

“Our system in the Caribbean doesn’t support fathers to play an active role in the child’s life- for example, mothers are given maternity leave to help with bonding and I get that but fathers on the other hand, what incentive do they have from the system to be active in the child’s life at that point.” – Antiguan community member

After birth, mothers have time to bond with the children, and fathers generally do not. Because most children are born out of wedlock, the system does not cater to father’s involvement in caretaking and child raising from birth and potentially before that. Both male and female focus group participants discussed the need for paternity leave, suggesting that when the system allows only women to be home, it is forcing gendered household roles on families, perpetuating systems of inequality.  We agree that in order to achieve gender equality in the workplace and the home, men and women must have an equal chance to be there with their newborn babies. So, we should support equitable paternity leave for men and women regardless of marital status, right?

Maybe. During the assessment (and at a March 2019 Regional Meeting where healthcare providers and practitioners gathered from four Caribbean countries to discuss learning and future collaboration), healthcare providers discussed potential challenges around paternity leave.  If a man has multiple partners and fathers more than one child (sometimes as many at 3 or 4 members of the focus group reported) in a year. One healthcare provider noted that culturally men are sometimes viewed as “sperm donors”, due to their low involvement in pregnancy care and childrearing.  If paternity leave were to be offered to unmarried men (or married men with extramarital children), would they get it for all of their children? What if they have multiple children in a year? How can employers verify paternity and ensure that the leave is used to care for the child? These are all questions that need to be explored before establishing  updated paternity leave policies.

So, what do paternity leave policies look like across the world? Ninety-two countries do not have national paid paternity leave policies, i.e. policies in place that ensure new fathers get adequate paid time off with their newborn. According to this map and data, richer countries tend to provide more generous paternity leave. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, the United States is one of only eight countries that does not have a national law guaranteeing paid parental leave for mothers or fathers. Tajikistan, on the other hand, is the only low-income country to provide more than 14 weeks paid leave.

While we do not yet have the answers to some of the questions coming out of Antigua, we do know that momentum for paternity leave and other family-friendly policies is building. Over the past decade alone, a handful of African countries have introduced paid paternity leave. Will Antigua and Barbuda be next?