Most people in Serbia believe that maternity leave lasts exactly one year. This notion is prevalently shared by those who have never had an “opportunity” to wander through the administrative labyrinth in search of the Minotaur represented in the form of an eligibility proof.
In short, things work a bit differently in practice. According to the Serbian Law on health insurance, maternity leave begins no later than 28 days before the due date and ends when the new-born is three months old. This is designed to allow mothers adequate preparation for childbirth, recovery from childbirth and sufficient period to care for the new-born. After maternity leave, child nursing leave begins.
Maternity leave and childcare leave together last 365 days, i.e. they end a few weeks before the child is one year old. In most republics of former Yugoslavia parents are provided with a one-year leave of absence after the birth of a child, which is still used primarily by mothers. Our law recognizes the equal right of mothers and fathers to use this leave. However, the occurrence of fathers exercising this right remains at the level of an incident.
What will my colleagues say?
According to the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs’ data, yearly about three hundred fathers use the right to take a leave from work to care for a child. Reasons behind such small numbers are usually searched for in the still dominant patriarchal cultural patterns and the lack of support and understanding for fathers taking a leave on the part of their social surroundings.
However, in a situation marked by high unemployment rates and uncertainty at work, as well as constant narrowing of employees’ rights, for men to stay at work is more of a rational choice made to secure any financial stability for the family, than a straightforward reflection of their unwillingness to take on more childcare responsibilities.
Social environment’s unpreparedness and lack of employers’ will to meet the needs of new fathers also don’t help, and neither does the fact that men usually earn more than their partners. According to a survey conducted in Serbia as part of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, only 1.9% of fathers use the right to take a leave for child care, and almost 9 out of 10 respondents state that they want or have wanted to spend more time with their children when they are/were young.
Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway lead in the share of fathers exercising this right (around 40%), but what is often considered a trend and a reflection of the countries’ culture is actually a result of decades of policies designed by governments who made parental leave mandatory for men and gradually increased its duration. These decisions were there, too, initially met with great resistance from the public, and it took a long time for legal norms to turn into a generally accepted trend, as well as for the benefits they bring to parents and children, as well as employers, to become widely recognized.
Research conducted globally by the international organization “Promundo” shows that greater involvement of fathers in caring for children contributes to their offspring’s better academic success, reduces chances of juvenile delinquency in boys and reduces domestic violence. By redefining masculinity and directing young men towards family care, this organization has contributed to reducing crime among young men in Brazilian favelas. Globally, “Promundo” conducts research that is published every two years in the form of the World Fathers’ Report and attracts increasing public attention.
According to research conducted in the Balkans as a part of this campaign, the social role of fathers has changed significantly compared to what it used to be in the second half of the twentieth century. Today, fathers are more involved in caring for children and more willing to give them tenderness and attention than in previous decades.
However, when it comes to the division of unpaid work in the family, which includes child care but also other household chores, men still take on a noticeably smaller part of this burden. Male respondents from the Balkan countries showed that they are still predominantly involved in traditionally male household chores, i.e. chores that are not done on a daily basis, such as home repairs, grocery purchases and bill payments, while just under 30% are involved in everyday household chores such as cooking, cleaning and washing.
Based on the results of this research, but also on the experience of Nordic countries, we can conclude that the role of the father in the family is not set in stone and that a large number of men have a need and desire to redefine the practice and public perception of fatherhood. In order to bring about such a change, however, what is needed rather than mere existence of a legal framework are effective systemic solutions and means to enable a substantial re-examination of the traditional family model.
What happens when the nursing leave ends?
Formally speaking, in Serbia, it is possible to send a child as young as six months old to a state daycare facility.However, enrolment rules vary from one facility to the other and mainly depend on their employees’ (excessive) workload.
Preference in enrolment is given to children of single parents, students and employed persons, so that unemployed mothers are often deprived of this opportunity. This, in turn, makes it difficult for them to look for a job. This “catch 22” is one in a series of systemic problems that further discourage women from entering the labour market. It often happens that parents cannot get a medical certificate stating that a child is ready to join the nursery if he or she has not yet received the MMR vaccine – which is only given to one-year-olds.
Since child nursing leave formally ends before the baby’s first birthday, mothers usually extend the leave by going on a sick leave or using available vacation days. These are just some of the ways in which mothers are forced to cut corners in order to fix the defects in a system that has been broken for years. What happens when a child finally does start daycare?
The public often hears experts’ opinions and recommendations issued by international organizations such as UNICEF on the great importance of earliest childhood for the formation of child’s personality. In a campaign UNICEF emphasizes the importance of the first 1,000 days in a child’s life, in which her or his intellectual and emotional potentials develop at an unrepeatable rate. It is therefore crucial for the child to spend this period in an environment that stimulates learning and development, and which is at the same time filled with security and care. In that context experts emphasize the importance of achieving relationship and trust with parents, which will last for a lifetime if they are properly built during this period.
Is it then realistic to expect a one-year-old child to stay in nursery for 40 or more hours a week so that parents can complete their work responsibilities? What consequences does this leave on the child’s development, and what on the parents, who are increasingly torn between family and work obligations?
In most cases, parents in Serbia are forced to rely on the help of their extended family for the benefit of their children. Members of the extended family help by having the child spend part of the day with them, between their stay in a daycare and the parents’ return from work. Some children are sent to nursery at an older age, and until then spend the time when their parents are at work mostly with their grandparents.
The so-called grandmother-service relies mostly on the help and free work of grandmothers, who “never find it difficult” and who gladly accept to help their loved ones. However, is it necessary to organize family life and care for children in this way, and what are the consequences for individuals? How does additional unpaid work affect grandmothers, and how does it reflect on young parents and their children?
It could be speculated that such interdependence, despite the tropes of warmth and closeness that allegedly make our part of the world “so different from the others”, reduces the chances of couples with children to develop their own independence and partnership, and reduces the chances of older family members, especially women, to enjoy retirement, instead of taking on new responsibilities.
In many European countries overburdening grandparents is avoided, and balancing family and business life is made easier by allowing parents to work flexible or part-time after returning from parental leave. This principle allows such organizing family and professional life which leaves families enough time to be together.
Truth be told, the right to part-time and flexible working hours is claimed disproportionately by women and men in these countries, too. Research on the impact of flexible working hours on parents in Germany shows that the option to return to work with flexible hours or part-time greatly helps mothers to decide to return to work.
When it comes to the republics of the former Yugoslavia, such practice is recognized by law in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, while in Serbia the return to part-time work is possible only for parents of children with disabilities. In a country where workers’ rights are permanently compromised rather than promoted, in a society where women perform lower-paid jobs in precarious conditions, the question is how many of them could choose to work part-time or flexible while remaining above the edge of poverty.
The coronavirus pandemic has made it more obvious than ever how vulnerable the women who perform some of the most risky, and at the same time most underestimated jobs – while simultaneously doing unpaid work at home and complementing for the educational system in times of crisis.
The President of Serbia addressed the public recently, announcing another lockdown in Belgrade and triggering the latest wave of protests across the country. During the same press conference it was stated that dog owners and mothers with children will be allowed to go out at certain intervals. So, according to the president, only mothers take their children for a walk.
Let’s not forget how Minister Slavica Đukić Dejanović, in charge of population policy, expressed hope that the pandemic and the lockdown would contribute to the increase in birth rates; as well as the Prime Minister’s loud silence about the fact that she might occupy the highest social position in our society, but in the eyes of the law still have no relation to the child she is bringing up with her female partner.
The messages sent from the places of power, and the accompanying policies indicate that we are devastatingly far from seriously reconsidering, let alone redefining the traditional family and the role of women and men fulfil within it.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was originally published in Serbian on July 28, 2020.