When Nasim Hossain, a senior manager at an international trading company, first heard the news from his wife Tanuja Islam that they were having a baby, he became very excited. But soon, he realised how hard it would be for Tanuja to take care of herself and the family, because Nasim’s parents were no more and Tanuja’s parents were old and living in their village. And so, initially, all the responsibilities that came with her pregnancy fell upon Tanuja alone.
In her seventh month of pregnancy, Tanuja took four months of maternity leave from her role as a marketing executive at a private firm. Since it was her first pregnancy, she started facing different health complications. She felt helpless as nobody was there to support her when Nasim was at work. Nasim came home late frequently, as he couldn’t always tell his boss about his wife’s illness. Tanuja grew increasingly depressed.
During the birth of their first child Falaq, Tanuja was taken to hospital a week before delivery. Nasim stayed at the hospital with her. Every morning, he would go to the office and go to the hospital once his work was done. When the baby was finally born, Nasim struggled to leave Tanuja for even an hour, as both the baby and the mother needed him, with nobody else there to take care of them except for hospital staff. The new mother and baby both required care and compassion as well as being fed their medication, from him. Nasim, however, was only able to manage three days of leave from his job, which ended in the blink of an eye.
“You cannot imagine how it feels when you have to attend office on time, while your newborn and the mother are in the hospital. I had to direct my team and monitor whether everything was going alright, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I made many mistakes because I was distracted. I would call my wife every half an hour and ask whether they are alright or needed anything. I had to call the doctor and nurses to take extra care of my daughter and my wife. Other times, I would make a list of what I needed to buy after work and contemplate about where I could find those,” explains Nasim.
“Most of the time, I could not wait to see them and used to wrap up my work an hour or two before the office closed. During the first week, my boss showed compassion but by the second week, he seemed annoyed with me. One day, he angrily said, ‘I think your mind is not here. If you need to be with your wife and child, then stay at home. What is the need to come to the office if you cannot work?’ Another day, one of my co-workers was making fun of me to another co-worker, ‘Bro, we have also become fathers. We never acted like him.’ After that, I tried to be more attentive at work,” says Nasim.
“But soon I started feeling guilty about not being able to make time to take my daughter into my arms, make eye contact with her, help her mother bathe her and feed her. I wasn’t able to do household chores, and most importantly, help Tanuja fight against post-partum depression. I knew that it was much harder for my wife emotionally and physically,” says Nasim.
According to the 197 (1) of Bangladesh Service Rules, female government servants get six months of paid leave while the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 provides 16 weeks maternity leave for female workers.
However, till date, the country has no paternity leave policy for its male workers. A few private and non-government organisations are coming forward by starting to give paid leave to male employees. For example, the non-governmental organisation BRAC provides one-month paternity leave for its male employees. The financial institution, IPDC Finance Ltd, also gives two weeks leave to new fathers.
While paternity leave is increasingly being demanded across the world as a right, the need for it in Bangladesh is still a debate for many. Many of us still don’t want to admit that fathers also have a responsibility towards childcare just as much as the mother.
In 2014, the government considered granting working fathers a 15-day paternity leave to ensure proper care of the infants and their wives. As of now, there is no update on the issue.
Earlier, couples would live in large families where the grandparents or other members of the family members could help take care of the newborn and the mother. But now, many couples living in urban areas live in nuclear families and both work, often outside the home. During the pregnancy as well as after childbirth, husbands have to take care of the baby and the mother, and leave from work during these days is crucial.
Paternity leave is important because both parents’ presence and care during infancy is a significant investment in the early development of their child. It helps the parents bond with their child. It is the start of their journey of parenthood. The father’s presence during the first few days after childbirth also help mothers fight against postpartum depression, according to studies.
Paternity leave also enables men to learn how to take care of their baby, even after they go back to work. It is equally important to acknowledge how difficult it is for women to stay at home with the baby and do household work at the same time. In our country, it is mothers who bear the major responsibilities of child rearing, because of the stereotype that raising children and household work is women’s work.
Insufficient support from fathers also forces many women to end up leaving their jobs, often permanently. Had there been co-parenting from the beginning, these women would get more opportunities to stay on at their jobs. The idea of shared parenting should be institutionally encouraged by the government.
According to policy analyst Syed Mahbubul Alam Tahin, who is also the secretary of the Centre for Laws and Policy Affairs, paternity leave is now a demand of the times and it must be introduced in policy. “And the policy must be made suitable for all classes. For example, we must ensure that the working classes are getting this facility as paid leave. Without doing that, if we just make it available for the government or corporate companies, it won’t bring any good for all,” he says.