AS at January 1, 2023 all Jamaican men employed in the public sector became eligible for paternity leave.
The staff orders has now been amended to indicate that men over the age of 18 years who are employed on a full- or part-time basis (minimum 18 hours per week) and who have given at least 12 months of continuous service to the public sector qualify for this allowance. This leave can be taken in more than one instalment, with a minimum of five workings days per instalment in the first six months after delivery of the baby.
This is an unprecedented move by the Government of Jamaica as previously only men employed in the private sector, upon the discretion of their employers, were able to obtain paternity leave. This is definitely a step in the right direction for Jamaica as it is an indication that the country is taking strides to keep up with the developed countries of the world that give fathers the right to take time off to bond with their newborn babies.
Jamaican men will now receive a period of four weeks (20 working days), which outpace Indian and French men, who only receive two weeks ( 10 working days), and is comparable with countries like Portugal and Lithuania that grant three and four weeks, respectively. In the Caribbean the Dominican Republic is the only country that grants paternity leave to their male citizens and this is only two days. So, by making this bold step, Jamaica is demonstrating its commitment to national development, of which family life is an integral part.
The matter of paternity can be a very delicate matter in the Jamaican society. In days gone by paternity leave would not even be a topic for consideration as child-minding was something that was considered to be the responsibility of the mother, and men's role in parenting was limited to providing financial support. In those days Jamaican men were hardly concerned with the general keep and care of their babies, and certainly one would be hard-pressed to get a man to assist with chores, such as diaper changing and staying up late with babies, while the mother got the chance to rest and recuperate after a difficult delivery.
The very verbiage that is often used when discussing men and childcare is very telling as men would often say that they are "babysitting" their own children. Over the years we have seen a significant shift in this behaviour and more and more men now want to be a part of the lives of their children in all areas. As stipulated in the staff orders, men are being granted paternity leave, which will allow them to "spend time with, nurture, and care for a newborn child".
By extension, one could say that, while the father is on paternity leave, this will enable him to spend more time with the newborn while the mother recuperates. It is, therefore, important to note that this is not a vacation leave. It is not a time for fathers to hang out with their friends at their favourite chill spot or to treat it as time off from work for rest and relaxation, and as one social media commenter expressed, it is not a time to "travel, date, or impregnate other women". Also, it is not a time for fathers to hold firm on old beliefs of what he will and will not do as it relates to taking care of the baby and will now pull up his sleeves and be just as involved with childcare as the mother.
Certainly, there is no arguing the fact that men are just as deserving of time off to take care of children as this is a very exhausting and demanding task for both parents. What I particularly like about this allowance is that the parents will have the flexibility to decide whether both parties would like to take leave at the same time or they may decide that the father will take his 20 days after the mother's maternity leave has expired. In that way the baby will benefit from the care of each parent for a longer period of time, and parents' fear of finding alternative care will be mitigated for at least an extra month. This is a win-win situation for the family unit and may even allow more mothers who choose to breastfeed to continue for a longer period as the breast milk could be expressed and the father could be more active in the feeding process. In fact, this would make feeding the newborn even easier as the father would not have to prepare formula.
It is also important to note here that the total entitlement for the allowance is three and the man can only apply for a second period of leave six months after submitting an application for the first. Many Jamaicans have expressed some amount of concern on how this leave will be treated if, for example, a man impregnates two or more women in the same year, especially if the due dates are close together. This, no doubt, will be a highly stressful situation for the man as he will surely be expected to be in several places at the same time, providing equal care and nurturing for all the babies, especially since the women involved will be aware that he is on paternity leave.
As we prepare to enjoy these new benefits, there are a few "jackets" that we will need to iron out. Jamaica has the unfortunate reputation of having one of the highest rates of paternity fraud in the world. In fact, Dr Herbert Gayle, leading anthropologist at The University of the West Indies, was quoted as saying that 25 per cent of Jamaican men are unknowingly raising children who are not biologically theirs. Some may even argue that this figure is higher as, anecdotally, it is said that, in Jamaica, for one out of every three children the wrong man was named by the mother as the biological father.
The issue of "giving men jackets" is a recurrent bad habit among Jamaican women who, for one reason or another, see it fit to assign children to men who are not their actual fathers. Fortunately, this may not be an issue for the acquisition of paternity leave as Dr Nigel Clarke, minister of finance and the public services, hastened to set this record straight recently.
In an interview with Emily Shields on Radio Jamaica 94 FM's Hotline on January 4 Minister Clarke sought to allay the fears of men on this matter. According to the minister, though documentation will be required for the allocation of paternity leave, proof of paternity or a DNA test is not necessary as the applicant only needs to show that he is the registered father of the child. In other words, once his name appears on the birth certificate he is entitled to the allowance.
The question, therefore, begs to be asked as to whether this, in itself, could potentially be problematic. As one social media commenter stated recently, "A lot of men will now be getting paternity leave for another man's child/children." Will this now make jackets an easier pill to swallow if the potential exists for the receiver of the jacket to get paternity leave? What impact, if any, will this new development have on men seeking DNA tests if there is doubt?
Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the issue of paternity fraud is a worrying and vexing part of our culture. The fact that the conversations surrounding paternity leave and the issue of questionable paternity are so intricately linked indicates the stark reality of paternity fraud in Jamaica. One would get the impression that, though most men welcome the idea of taking time off to spend time with and bond with their newborn baby, there is still the overarching concern as to whether or not the child in question is his.
Though my intention is not to throw cold water on such a wonderful, groundbreaking piece of legislation, it brings to consciousness an issue that seems to have no end. Will the actual fathers benefit from paternity leave?
Kathey Wanliss is head of the Department of Modern Languages at Shortwood Teachers' College. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.