POPULATION

Would increasing paternity leave help boost Spain’s flagging birth rate?

Government’s own figures show money is available to give fathers same rights as mothers

A father buttons up his son’s smock before taking him to school in Madrid.
A father buttons up his son’s smock before taking him to school in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

Two weeks after the birth of his second son, Asier Bidaure returned to his job at an employment center. “I hadn’t slept properly for days,” he says. “It was really tough.”

He compares the experience to the 12 months that followed the birth of his first child when his wife returned to her job after five months, and as Asier was unemployed, he looked after the baby: “It was a very positive experience for me, as well as my daughter.”

We have to end the belief that women in their thirties are somehow a risky bet for companies” Teresa Jurado, UNED sociology lecturer 

In 2009 Spanish Congress decided to change the law to give fathers the same amount of time off work as mothers after the birth of a child: 16 weeks. The first step was to increase paternity leave from two weeks to four weeks. That should have taken effect in January 2011. A year later, lawmakers approved a motion that would have given both parents the same amount of time off to look after newborns.

But year after year, blaming the crisis, the government has put off passing the motion that would put the law into effect. “The economic situation doesn’t allow for it yet,” says an employment ministry spokesman. But a detailed analysis by the Health Ministry shows that Spain’s declining birth rate in recent years means enough money has already been saved on parental leave to finance at least a partial extension of paternity leave as required by law.

According to the figures, between January 2011 and December 2014, Spain saved more than €500 million in maternity and paternity leave as a result of the falling birth rate, spending just €1.6 billion in 2014.

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Lourdes Ciuró, a deputy for the Catalan nationalist Democratic Convergence (CDC) party, says the question of granting fathers the same rights as mothers has wider implications. “Society has to understand that child care is everybody’s responsibility,” she says. “It’s not about the money, it’s a question of political cowardice. Companies may be a little worried at first, but giving both parents the same rights will improve productivity, as well as relations between men and women.”

The conservative Popular Party (PP) was alone among the parties in Congress in not pledging to extend paternity leave as a way of combating population decline in its general election program.

Teresa Jurado, a sociology lecturer at the UNED distance-learning university, points to a survey carried out by the University of Navarre showing that 40% of first-time mothers stop working full time when their babies reach the age of 18 months. Around 11% work shorter days, 18% are unemployed anyway, and 8% work part time.

“We have to end the belief that women in their thirties are somehow a risky bet for companies,” says Jurado, pointing out that the best way to prevent businesses from discriminating against women they fear will take maternity leave is to make that leave equally available to men. She estimates that the cost of doing so between now and 2023 will be around €1.4 billion a year, an amount covered by the savings made as a result of the declining birth rate.

40% of first-time mothers stop working full time when their babies reach the age of 18 months

The PP accuses its rivals of making promises it cannot keep. The CEOE business confederation is also opposed to extending paternity leave, saying it will hit businesses hard. “Often, businesses have to pay social security while somebody is absent, and it creates organizational problems because that man has to be replaced temporarily,” says Jordi García Viña, the CEOE’s labor relations director.

The experience of countries such as Iceland and Sweden suggests that giving fathers full paternity leave brings about cultural changes in many men after they have brought up a child and looked after a household full time.

This is what happened to Antonio, a technician based in Seville who looked after his child while he was unemployed. “If you don’t go through it yourself, you just aren’t aware of how tiring it is bringing up a baby and running the house on your own. It is very important to put yourself in the mother’s position.”

Antonio describes the current two-week paternity leave as “ridiculous.” He has now returned to work but says that he and his partner have ruled out the idea of having a second child. “We barely have enough time for our son. It just wouldn’t make sense.”