hen my daughter was born I had a very rare complication post-caesarean. I had an open wound without any stitches that had to be cleaned. It was very painful,” says Dr Itrat Zehra, 31, currently a stay-at-home mother.

Dr Zehra needed constant help even in using the washroom. For more than a month, someone had to carry her to the washroom in such a way that her entire body remain straight, to prevent further stretching of the open wound. Her husband, also a doctor working with a pharmaceutical company, utilised his entire annual leave and a few casual leaves to look after her for a month. His company has no provision for paternity leave.

“When his leave ended, I shifted to my parents’ house, since everyone there is also a doctor. The house was custom-made for my situation, and the entire family looked after me till my complete recovery,” she narrates.

“Though I have been blessed with a caring family, the presence of your soulmate by your side throughout for a few days definitely had a positive impact. It would have been a morale booster if his company had paternity leave, as then he wouldn’t have had to utilise his entire annual leave.”

When Dr Zehra’s child was born two years ago, hardly any organisation had an allowance for paternity leave. While the concept of paternity leave is gaining popularity around the world, in Pakistan it still needs recognition.

Paternity leave, a relatively new concept in Pakistan, promotes parent-child bonding, improves outcomes for children, and even increases gender equity at home and at the workplace

Dr Zehra says that her husband’s organisation didn’t provide him any paternity leave, since there was no such law. “He was asked by his department head to submit the cost of my entire treatment, which he submitted twice, but was not reimbursed. In such circumstances, it is difficult for us to expect the provision of any paternity leave, even after a bill has been passed,” she says.

In October this year, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice approved a bill allowing one-month paternity leave to fathers on the birth of their child. Article 37(e) of the Constitution of Pakistan allows for maternity leave for working women but there was no provision for paternity leave for men before the passage of this bill. According to the bill, the mother will get a six-month leave and the father will be eligible for a leave of one-month on the birth of their first child. The father will get one-month leave for the second and the third child as well while the mother will get a four-month and three-month leave for the second and third child respectively.

Although at present the bill is applicable only to Islamabad, it is a huge step forward in a society where there is no concept of paternity leave or of a father taking care of the children, especially newborns. According to the bill, ignoring the bill will be considered an offence which will be punishable either with imprisonment or a fine. The bill will be applicable to all government and non-government institutions in the federal capital. It is hoped that the provinces will enact similar legislation soon.

While Dr Zehra is not hopeful that her husband’s company would ever have provision for paternity leave, Murtaza Hasan, a banker, is lucky — his organisation adopted a paternity leave policy even before the government passed the bill. “They had three-day paternity leave but then on staffers’ insistence it was increased to about four weeks,” he says.

Hasan, who works in a multinational bank, was work­ing­ from home because of the lockdown when his second child was born, four months ago. However, he took leave from work to be able to help with the care of the newborn and the four-year-old first-born. Though Hasan calls himself a family man, he says, “I was not planning to take paternity leave as I had taken some days off work earlier because I wasn’t well and didn’t want to burden my colleagues further. But I took two weeks off on their insistence.” He utilised this time well, taking care of the toddler when the newborn needed the mother’s attention.

He thinks being around at this time helps create a bond with the child, on the one hand, while on the other it provides some relief to the mother. “In the present age, fathers are not just bread-winners, they also have to be an equal partner and find a balance between work and family. It’s a shared responsibility and the father’s responsibility increases if the wife is also a career woman.”

Hasan’s wife is currently working from home and has a flexible schedule but, at the time of the birth of their first child, she had a full time job. After some time, she had to opt for a more relaxed work schedule.

Hasan believes that paternity leave is all positive and would recommend others to opt for it. “One feels motivated and it’s good to know that one’s employer takes care of one’s needs and well-being.” About how the new mother felt, he says, he “didn’t particularly ask her but the relief showed on her face. We have a lot of help around the house as we live with my parents, yet my presence made a difference,” he says.

Like Dr Zehra’s husband, Shahzad, an IT expert who works in Dubai, too had to utilise his annual leave to be with the family when his wife came to Pakistan for the birth of their second child. Shahzad had planned his annual leave around the time of the birth so as to be able to spend some time with the family. The baby arrived early and had some health issues, for which he had to stay in the hospital for a week. For this, Shahzad requested his manager to reschedule his leave and is thankful that he was with his wife and children on the third day of the baby’s birth.

“Being by their side was a big relief. I could help out when needed during the day or night and was able to spend time with my four-year-old daughter, who might have felt her mother’s attention was been divided.”

When his first child was born, though Shahzad was working in Karachi then, he could not give his family much time, as he had a hectic schedule and there was no concept of paternity leave, not just in his company but in any organisation in Pakistan.

In fact, even worldwide, paternity leave is not a very old concept. In 1974, Sweden was the only country that provided paternity leave. But according to a January 2020 report in The Guardian, with a change in attitudes, countries increasingly started to recognise its importance and access to paid paternity leave improved. The International Labour Organisation found that the number of countries with statutory paternity leave provisions rose from 40 to 94 between 1994 and 2015.

Though Shahzad was able to avail his annual leave when needed, he thinks every organisation should offer paternity leave so that the father is able to be with the child at this early age. Usually we spend the whole day at work and return home tired and stressed out and just want to relax and not want any disturbance around the house. A newborn child needs a lot of attention while, at the same time, the mother who is recuperating after the delivery needs rest and taking care of.

Shahzad believes, “To encourage women back into work life, employers should offer flexible hours for new parents, so they can work with less stress. Paternity leave would benefit both the parents, as the father would be able to spend some time with the baby and develop a bond as the mother settles back into her career, if she so desires.”

While legislation needs to be implemented to cover both the private and public sectors, it needs to be done in a way that employers do not discriminate or hold it against employees who seek paternity leave, or use it as an excuse to delay their promotion, pay raises, etc. — as has been experienced by some women availing maternity leave.

Given the mindset of our society, and fearing social stigma — of going against the prevalent notion that men are breadwinners not carers — men may initially hesitate in availing paternity leave. However, once the benefits are realised, these mental blocks will likely give way to acceptance and more men seeking paternity leave and more organisations opening up to the idea.

The writer is a freelance journalist and tweets @naqviriz

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 29th, 2020

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