This article was written by Amelia Berman, an Assosciate at Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa

On 5 April 2015 the UK law on shared parental leave came into effect in the United Kingdom, affording parents of a newborn child or an adopted child up to fifty weeks of leave and thirty seven weeks of pay which can be shared between parents. This parental leave is in addition to the compulsory initial two weeks leave afforded to the mother.

Shared parental leave, a concept which already exists in many Scandinavian countries, can be taken for one period, or split into different segments with periods of work in between but must be taken by the parents within one year of the baby’s birth or adoption. Parents can also take time off simultaneously to look after their newborn child.

According to the United Kingdom’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg the motivation for the law is to promote equality in the workplace as well as the home. He comments that “for too long, mums have been told their place is at home with their child, while dads return to work. I want parents to choose for themselves how to balance work and family.”

Previously, fathers were entitled to one or two weeks paid ordinary paternity leave, or up to twenty six weeks’ paid additional paternity leave – but only if the mother or co-adopter returned to work. South Africa is in stark contrast with four months unpaid maternity leave afforded to mothers and the mere three days family responsibility leave afforded to fathers by the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, 1997.

Although the UK law has been criticised (perhaps correctly) for being too burdensome on employers, if utilised correctly, its objective can promote more equality within the workplace and can shatter the traditional stereotypes of men as breadwinners and women as caregivers.

Our government has already made strides to push the empowerment of women agenda, which is evident in the call for progressive realisation of at least 50% representation of women in decision-making structures prescribed by the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, passed by the National Assembly in March 2014. Extended shared parental leave would help to realise this aim.

The United Kingdom’s fifty weeks of leave may be excessive if considered alongside the statutory minimum prescribed maternity and family responsibility leave in South Africa. However, where equality is enshrined in section 9 of our Constitution, and more particularly gender, sex and marital status are prohibited grounds of discrimination, it is a matter of time before parental leave is extended statutorily to men on the birth or adoption of a child in South Africa.