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Paternity leave: Enhancing family values

By Ray Ekpu
12 October 2021   |   3:35 am
In the midst of the excruciating existential problems that Nigerians currently face, most of us must have missed it.

In the midst of the excruciating existential problems that Nigerians currently face, most of us must have missed it. By it I mean the decision by the Federal Government to grant 14 days paternity leave to its male workers when their wives deliver a baby. This provision is in the new Public Service Rules (PSR), as reported by the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Dr Folasade Yemi-Esan. This gesture is borrowing a chapter from the book of civilisation. This provision is even sweeter in our ears because it is being done by a government headed by a man who has extreme attributes of conservatism in matters relating to women and family.

In the morning of this government President Muhammadu Buhari was practically forced to shake hands with women appointed into his government. At the time in 2015, a controversy was born about Buhari’s alleged refusal to shake hands with some of his female appointees. I wrote a column titled “Mr President Just do it.” In that column I said, “Will shaking hands with women hurt Buhari? No. Will shaking hands with women help him? Yes. That will be one important step on the highway to the hearts of our women and gender equality activists. Mr President Just do it.”

The decision taken gives male workers in the Federal Public Service is at once a blow against negative patriarchy and another blow for the enhancement of family values. Most men in Nigeria do not get involved with the upbringing of their young children beyond providing money for their upkeep or schooling. The reason is because they have a fixation in their heads about men being heads of their families whose duty is simply to give orders that their wives must obey. They do not assist their wives in the kitchen even when they are sick or tired. Our women are therefore subjected to being the hewers of wood and drawers of water whose place is in the kitchen.

But things have changed in the world over the years as universal education and globalisation and technology unite the world and make it a global village according to Marshall McLuhan. Our women are getting good education and good jobs, which puts them in virtually the same position as some of their male counterparts. This policy will teach men that caring for their new born babies is a joint responsibility of both parents especially in the early part of the child’s life.

In 2018 there was a private members’ bill in the House of Representatives that proposed the inclusion of paternity leave in our laws. It was shot down by the legislators for the wrong reason, namely that men should be out there trying to work for money to take care of their families instead of staying home to bottle feed their babies. That was the wrongest reason on which to kill the bill. Even in the most primitive societies men and women have always been joint fenders for the family. The women farm or sell things in the market while the man may also be a farmer, trader or an office worker. It has always been that way.

In the modern world, also, the educated woman is as much the family’s breadwinner as the educated man. This decision was a Stone Age decision based on extremely conservative values. It would have been a more appropriate decision for the House of Representatives to refer the matter to the states for legislation because of the complications that may arise from cultural idiosyncracies. A matter such as that did not need the universal legislation of a national legislature.

I am, of course, aware that Lagos State Government had approved three weeks in 2014 as paternity leave for nursing fathers in its employment. In 2015, Enugu State Government also approved three weeks for the same purpose. These are salutary decisions taken by forward-looking, family-oriented governments. The other states of the federation should do likewise so as to improve bonding between wives and husbands on the one hand and fathers and their babies on the other hand. Even though some countries in Africa such as South Africa, Kenya, Mauritius, Cote d’Ivoire and Ethiopia have enacted laws nationally on the issue, it has worked for them because they either have populations that are largely homogenous or they have been able to manage their diversity less acrimoniously.

In Nigeria, a national legislation would have failed because of the sharp disparity in religious and cultural norms within the country and our reluctance to seek to become a modern nation. Some developed countries such as South Korea, Japan, France, Belgium, Norway, Portugal, Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Serbia, Estonia, Lithuania and Sweden have approved various rates of paid leave for paternity. In Sweden it is 90 days while South Korea and Japan approve 52 weeks paid paternity leave for their male workers. For me the length of time is not very important.

What is important is that men are meant to acknowledge that the first few days of a child’s life are tough for both mother and child and they need the helping hand of the other partner or parent. That is the most important message.

The second message is that there will be more beneficial bonding between father and child at this early stage of its life than at any other.

The third message is that the closeness of both parents at this time can improve the quality of their marriage and enhance family values.

The fourth message is that extreme patriarchy is not a value that must be pursued at the expense of family stability.

The fifth message is that gender equity is something to be mainstreamed by all and sundry if we are to have a well-rounded society based on well-rounded families.

The sixth message is that a wall of prejudice is brought down and I see a radiant glow of a smile on the faces of wives of federal public servants. This decision is a valentine present to family values and the struggle for modern living. Getting close to one’s children when they are very young is a win-win enterprise. Even when the child is yet to recognise the father, the father still wins by knowing that whether the child knows it or not he is in its corner.

Childhood is the most adorable period of a child’s life. It is a life of privilege, of being pampered, of being molly-coddled. In childhood, the child always wins. If it cries, it is pacified or pampered or fed. If it doesn’t cry its temperature is measured to see if it is okay or not. Fathers who simply throw money down for their children’s feeding and go away do not know what fun they are missing, the idiocy, the unthinkable, sell-destructive pranks and the wholesome innocence of it all.

When I see a father with his baby I am thrilled endlessly. He is saying to me, “I am human, I care for my family, I am handling my own share of parenting responsibilities.” The life of a nursing mother is a tribute to patience and tenacity. She does not sleep except the child slips into the arms of Morpheus and then the wattage of her smile expands and the wrinkles of worry wear away. This new rule provides a nugget of opportunity for aloof parents to come down from their high horse and see the real trauma that their wives go through to bring up their children. That is the most highly precious and unpaid job in the world. And the women do it with affection and panache and joy.

In a cultural setting like ours where polygamy exists, this regulation by the Federal Government must have its guiding rules. The rules must indicate how many times in one’s career he can benefit from this regulation. If a man has four wives or more who give birth to babies at about the same time, will the man he allowed to take his leave cumulatively or he is only allowed to take his leave only once. If a woman gives birth to quadruplets will the man be entitled to two weeks or eight weeks leave? If he takes eight weeks will that affect his work schedule especially if he is holding a sensitive position? Of course, there ought to be a ceiling on the number of times that a man can take his paternity leave. It cannot be taken indefinitely if the man chooses to breed an entire village all by himself.

During the regime of President Ibrahim Babangida, the government tried to put a peg on family strength in an attempt at population control. It said that a woman must not have more than four children. When Yakubu Mohammed and I interviewed the then President’s wife, Mariam, she told us that she raised shirted hell over the issue. She thought that fairness demanded that the policy ought, rather, to have placed a ceiling on the number of children men should have; with that policy a man who had four wives could easily manufacture 16 children without qualms. That policy was bound to die on arrival. It died and was buried in a shallow grave.

But I think that four children is a fair figure to use in this matter of paternity leave. Workers who wish to join their wives in giving their baby a soft landing will be happy to do their duty four times and thank the government for it. Buhari deserves full marks on this policy for giving unfair patriarchy a kick on the groin.