IN a time where fathers want to be more involved in their children’s lives, Father's Day is an opportunity to reflect on our current paternity leave policies. Do we as a society understand a father’s role and involvement in early childhood? Are we practicing gender equality?
Paternity leave matters because it makes it clear that caregiving is a shared responsibility, helping decrease the gender pay gap and allowing fathers to be actively involved in raising their children.
In Malaysia, fathers in the public sector enjoy seven days of leave to welcome and bond with their newborn, whilst those in the private sector are not entitled to any leave at all. In the now delayed commitment to amend the Employment Act of 1955, the Human Resources Ministry proposed a total of three days paternity leave for the private sector. This is simply not enough.
Most fathers value hands-on parenting.
Benny, a sustainability professional, has enjoyed this process: “From the very beginning until now, I’m still very much helping with the night sessions of feeding and changing diapers. It’s a tag team effort of a husband and wife to raise children.”
New dad Jo Fan, whose son was born a few days before the first movement control order, says working from home allowed him “to witness all the first milestones.”
The past year, being in a pandemic and several MCOs, has provided insight into why paternity leave is urgent and necessary for both parents.
Jo Fan believes being at home allowed him to better support his wife, which is crucial, especially as first time parents, “because it’s a period of high stress.”
As difficult as the pandemic may be, WFH has granted this unique opportunity and allowed fathers to contribute more. Studies based in the UK have found that, following the first Covid-19 lockdown, there was a 58% increase in childcare undertaken by men. In 2020, men were spending 64% of the time that women spent on childcare, compared to 39% in 2015. Farihah and her spouse, who welcomed their second child last year, speak to how caregiving was now more equally split compared to their experience with their eldest.
Paternity leave is also positive for mothers. In a survey conducted by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Vase.ai, 55% of women felt their partners had insufficient paternity leave. This negatively affected their health, and 65% of these women said that it also impacted their child and family. Introducing a seven day paternity leave could alleviate these stressors.
Additionally, women in Malaysia were hardest hit during the pandemic, with many leaving their jobs because of the double burden of caregiving and working. We also have one of the lowest labour force participation rates for women in Southeast Asia. Paternity leave helps bridge this gap as the World Bank data shows women are more likely to participate in the labour market with paid paternity leave – and obviously, the longer the better.
Farihah can attest to this, having interviewed for and starting a new job late last year, thanks to the support of her husband who was working from home and leading on caregiving.
Spending quality time with a new born and supporting their partners should be a father’s right. Currently, Malaysia lags behind its neighbours in paternity leave days. The Philippines allows 14 days leave, whilst Indonesia entitles its fathers to a month if they are public servants and two days paid leave in the private sector. Vietnam also allows between 5-14 days of paternity leave.
Even with the proposed three day paternity leave provision, many parents still feel this is insufficient. For Benny and for Farihah, the ideal paternity leave would be three months, or what is often referred to as the fourth trimester. But, for a start, seven days would help many families.
Welcoming a new baby into the family is an exciting experience for parents but they also need time to adjust and a longer paternity leave lets both parents figure out a routine that works. It is also a practical approach, as Farihah points out, it helps ease the process of sorting out post-birth matters, including birth registration and immediate check-ups for babies.
As we move towards recovery and reopening, fathers will soon return to work. It’s imperative we begin reconsidering our paternity leave policies. This is not just about fathers – it’s about families. In this, we urge Parliament to re-open to pass the Employment Act and grant fathers at least 7 days of paternity leave. This Father's Day, as we reflect on the role we want dads to play, this amendment is a good step towards a more equal society. As Farihah says, “If we orient our society towards prioritising family-friendly policies, we’ll all be better for it.”
Anis Farid is the Women’s Aid Organisation’s research and advocacy officer while Abinaya Mohan is WAO’s head of campaigns. The views expressed here are solely their own.