In recent years, Cuba, Uruguay, Chile, and Colombia have all introduced policies that allow both parents to share caring responsibilities. Such policies represent a shift away from the assumption of a nuclear family with a male-breadwinner. The trend is surprising to many, given the region’s historically conservative gender norms and dependence on unpaid domestic work, which is disproportionately performed by women (Bando, 2019). Nonetheless, it does recognize that the male breadwinner nuclear family is no longer the dominant composition of families in the region (Blofield & Martinez Franzoni, 2015).

The implementation of shared parental leave in Cuba, Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia is slowly encouraging a more egalitarian shift in the division of care and domestic work by including and framing fathers and –in some cases even extended kin– as caretakers. What are the conditions under which shared parental leave was implemented? What potential do they have in addressing inequalities? What challenges remain? The cases of Cuba, Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia highlight the diverse and complex policy landscape that has shaped the implementation of parental leaves in the region.

Cuba (2003): Extending beyond the Nuclear Family

Cuba was a pioneer in the region, introducing shared parental leave in 2003. The constitution established in the post-revolutionary period institutionalized the family in alignment with socialist ideals of equality between men and women. The Cuban state framed the family and the social reproductive sphere as one of co-responsibility between men, women, and the state. The 1976 Family Code and Constitution reiterated this principle, asserting the “absolute equality of obligations and rights of the couple to contribute to the maintenance of the home” (Alvarez-Tabio, 2017, p.21). This socialist legacy potentially laid the ground for parental and state co-responsibility to be a feature of family policies, and a vision of care responsibility beyond the nuclear family. Even with this foundation, however, the shared leave policy only came into effect in 2003.

Parental leave in Cuba allows parents to share caring responsibilities after the initial period of maternity leave and receive 60% of their salary. Parents are entitled to take parental leave  until the child is 1 year old (Decreto Ley No234 de 2003 de La Maternidad de Las Trabajadoras, 2003). In 2017, Cuba extended parental leave to allow grandparents or any other family member such as the parent’s siblings to take the parental leave instead of the parents and receive the same benefits (Guevara Ramirez, 2017; Miroff, 2017).  This policy incentivizes new configurations of care and recognizes the role of extended family in care work. Thus, it can be classified as promoting co-responsibility beyond the parents and the traditional nuclear family.

However, even when a family policy is progressive on paper, in practice there are many factors that shape its outcome. In Cuba’s case, persistent gender norms resulted in a low uptake of parental leave by men: between its implementation in 2003 and 2014, only 125 fathers took paternity leave (UNICEF 2019). Furthermore, many families in Cuba choose not to have children because of the cost and limited economic resources available (Miroff, 2017). Additionally, Cuba has demographic challenges that hinder its economic development such as a high rate of migration, a declining fertility rate and an aging population (Diaz-Brisquets, 2015). All these challenges limit the extent to which progressive family policies in Cuba can have a positive effect on gender norms and socio-economic outcomes.

Chile (2011): Enhancing Social Equity through Parental Leave

Chile was the second country in the region to implement parental leave. Michelle Bachelet’s government (2006-2010, 2014-2018) laid the groundwork for a family leave policy by making family policies and work-family conflict a politically salient issue. Bachelet’s policy innovations included state-funded childcare (Staab, 2012) – a policy that was so popular that it made family policy into a campaign issue in the next election and paved the path for a more ambitious parental leave policy reform (Blofield and Touchton, 2021). The 2011 policy reform introduced a parental leave scheme –permiso postnatal parental– of 12 weeks which could be shared between both parents after the initial 12 weeks of maternity leave. Both parents have the option to take the leave fully or work part-time and extend the leave to 18 weeks (Lupica, 2016).

The parental leave reform in Chile enhanced social equity by expanding the family policies beyond formal salaried workers. Instead, the leaves apply also to the many low-income parents and those parents who are self-employed (Lupica 2016). Because the state subsidizes it fully through its tax system, the Chilean leave policy also reduces the possibility of discrimination by employers due to the perceived costs of parenthood (International Policy Centre for Growth & UNICEF, 2020). Thus, this policy had positive effects on both gender and social equity. Like Cuba, a key challenge that remains is the low uptake of parental leave by fathers: government data from 2018 found that less than 1% of parental leaves were transferred to fathers (Gobierno de Chile Subsecretaría de Previsión Social, 2018).

Uruguay (2013): Fostering Co-Responsibility between Parents, the Market and the Government

Uruguay was an early adopter of social welfare policies in Latin America in the early 20th century (Hawley and Carnes 2020). To date, the country is still known for high levels of support for progressive policies. The momentum for introducing parental leave came from feminist groups and former president José Mujica’s push for a national care plan during his campaign in 2009 (Hawley & Carnes, 2021). The plan aimed at implementing a government system to promote co-responsibility for care between families, the state, and the market (Touchton & Blofield, 2021). In 2013, Mujica’s government, extended maternity, and paternity leave, and introduced a shareable parental leave that allows either parent to work part-time after the 14 weeks of maternity leave and until the child is six months old (Ley N° 19161 Modificación Del Subsidio Por Maternidad y Fijación Por Paternidad y Subsidio Para Cuidado Del Recién Nacido, 2013). The government subsidizes 50% of the recipients’ salary, allowing them to work part-time without foregoing full-time pay. This policy model promotes co-responsibility of care between parents, the government, and the market.

As in Chile, this reform extended the eligibility for shared parental leave to self-employed parents and small-business owners. Data from 2016 shows that post-reform the uptake for shared parental leave increased by 20% between 2014 and 2016 (Batthyány et al., 2018). However, a gender and socio-economic gap remains in the use of this policy. From 2014 to 2016, 98% of those that applied for parental leave were women, and lower-income women used parental leave less compared to those with higher incomes (Batthyány et al., 2018). Thus, challenges remain in terms of fathers’ uptake and improving access for low-income families.

Colombia (2021):  Improving on Past Reforms

Colombia is the most recent country to enact a shared parental leave policy in 2021. Prior to this, the last major family policy reform in 2017 may have inadvertently increased levels of informality and self-employment especially among low-income women and those with lower educational attainment (Uribe et al., 2019). Some believe that when they extended both maternity and paternity leave, employer discrimination increased, stemming from a perceived increase in the cost of hiring women of childbearing age, thus pushing  women into informal work and self-employment where maternity leave is not enforced (Uribe et al, 2019).

The 2021 shared parental leave policy introduced two major changes to promote a more egalitarian division of care work. First, this law made it possible for mothers to transfer the last 6 weeks of their total maternity leave (18 weeks) to their partners. Second, it introduced the option of taking maternity leave and paternity leave on a part-time basis and double its duration, allowing for more flexibility (Ley No 2114, 2021). The parental leave reform is considered an important advancement for gender equality and a policy solution to counteract the negative effects the previous policies had on women’s labour market outcomes. By allowing parents to share parental leave, this policy frames childrearing as a shared responsibility. In addition, this reform introduces fines for employers who engage in discriminatory practices such as asking women for pregnancy tests.

This new policy represents an opportunity for the country to learn from its previous family policies and move forward with its agenda to promote gender equality. It is too early to have data on the impact of this policy; nonetheless, its introduction is an important first step toward the country’s gender equality goals. The reform does have limitations: it excludes parents who are not legally married or in a registered common-law union; it shortens the length of maternity leave for the mother if she decides to transfer it, and it is not designed with specific incentives to increase uptake by fathers (Matos Zaidiza, 2021).

Challenges and the future of shared parental leave in the region

By promoting co-responsibility, shared parental leave policies have the potential to shift entrenched gender roles, the traditional division of labour, and socio-cultural norms that hinder gender equality (OECD, 2020). This is particularly important in Latin America where entrenched social expectations have worked to prevent men from taking on care responsibilities and locked women into their reproductive roles (OECD, 2020). Policies must address the gendered and cultural norms around the meaning of family and what it means to do care work. They must also account for the structural factors that perpetuate gender inequality. This is a complex challenge: factors that shape policy implementation are diverse and include the conditions of the labour market, the strength of the informal economy, eligibility criteria, and how employers, the government, and families respond to the policy.

A common challenge in the region is the low uptake by fathers of shared parental leave. Evidence shows that the availability of shared parental leave is not enough to promote father’s participation and more equality in care work. These policies need to provide stronger incentives to promote a more egalitarian division of labour in care. In other countries such as Canada and Sweden, the use of quotas that reserve a part of the shared parental leave for fathers and incentives such as use-it-or-lose-it policies were effective for increasing fathers’ participation (Patnaik, 2019).

A large informal economy poses another challenge to effective shared parental leave policies in Latin America: estimates suggest that between 30% to 75% of the workforce in the region is informally employed (Hawthorne and Carnes 2021). This is a policy problem given the eligibility for family policies is generally based on formal employment, and the number of formal contributions to the tax or healthcare system. This system, then, excludes those in informal, precarious or self-employment. Women are disproportionately represented in the informal economy; if systems are designed based on the formal economy, they further disadvantage women in the informal economy who already work with less social protection and receive lower incomes than those formally employed (UN Women, 2019).

Despite these challenges, important policy lessons emerge from these case studies. For instance, the case of Cuba shows the importance of rethinking the role of extended family in care policies. Chile’s robust government funding of parental leave reduces discrimination and broadens eligibility for parental leaves. Uruguay’s example shows how a coordinated set of policies can foster co-responsibility between parents, the market, and the government. Colombia’s experience exemplifies how governments can improve policies by understanding the impacts of previous ones and counteracting potential negative effects. There remains a long way for shared parental leave policies to become widespread in Latin America. However, these four countries demonstrate how social and political actors in the region can re-imagine care work, innovate with policies, and move towards gender equality, despite each country’s unique challenges.


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