On Wednesday 17th February, the European Commission closes its public consultation on a new initiative aimed at addressing women’s labour market participation and enabling working families better balance their caring and work responsibilities. It replaces the EC’s proposal for a maternity leave Directive which got blocked in the European Council. It has been labelled ‘A New Start’.
Children are one of the biggest groups who need care. As a network promoting the rights and well-being of children one can’t help but wonder if the European Commission has correctly framed the challenge of valuing care and work, and therefore whether the response will be appropriate and fit for the future.
The driver behind the initiative is to get women into a job – seemingly any job. Anything to help the EU reach its employment target of 75%. The road map goes back to referring to the ‘growth and jobs’ agenda. Yet, the Europe 2020 strategy – albeit not perfect – set a more balanced approach to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The analysis fails to adequately explore the societal and economic value of unpaid care both in the family and in the community.
As Eurochild we have fought long and hard at EU level for recognition of children as individual rights holders. When child poverty climbed the political agenda, driven by concerns over lost human capital, we argued that a good childhood in itself has value. The Recommendation on investing in children went some way to acknowledging that holistic approach.
For children to reach their full potential, they need high quality early years education and care, more learner-centred education, access to leisure, cultural and sport activities. However, ultimately parents carry responsibility for their children’s care. They need the financial means, time and support necessary to do so effectively.
Children’s experience of family life is probably the single most important factor in their well-being and development. Even as a growing proportion of children’s lives is spent outside the family home, it is family relationships that enable, or indeed hinder, children’s ability to flourish. Parents not only need more time to spend with children, but they also need to be emotionally available. This requires that society values and supports parents in their nurturing and caring role.
This is by no means a call for women to return to the “good old days” of being full-time carers. Even during a child’s first formative months and years, an infant will benefit if his/her mother feels fulfilled in her professional life and receives high quality professional care. Indeed the story of women’s emancipation is closely intertwined with the realisation of children’s rights. Every individual should be supported in realising their full potential both in their caring and professional responsibilities. This is simply a call to re-balance the value of unpaid care with the value of work. Both have huge societal and economic value. Maybe if that message came out more loudly and clearly in the framing of this new initiative both women and men would be better equipped to make choices that both they, and those they care for, deserve.
With respect to the specific proposals envisaged within this new initiative, Eurochild makes the following recommendations:
- New EU legislation is necessary to create a level playing field across Europe, avoid downward competitive pressure and to reinforce gender equality.
- We advocate for a minimum maternity leave of 24 weeks taking into account WHO and UNICEF recommendations around breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life and the growing body of neuroscience pointing to the importance of early childhood experience and brain development.
- Recognising the current impasse at EU level, maternity leave duration as well as guarantees on provision of early years care and education once leave entitlements could be considered as one of the benchmarks included in the new Pillar of Social Rights.
- Regarding parental leave, in line with the UNICEF Report Card no. 8 on the child care transition, the benchmark on parental leave should be entitlement to at least one year. Part of that should be reserved exclusively for fathers to incentivise men to embrace fully their care responsibilities.
- There should be more regular and politically visible monitoring of implementation of the Barcelona targets, but this should be coupled with application of the European Quality Framework on early childhood education and care (ECEC).
- The Semester Process and Country Specific Recommendations should be used more effectively to raise issues of the availability, quality and accessibility of care, as well as disincentives for second earners, but this should be coupled with a balanced assessment of how informal family- and community-based care is valued and supported.