Maternity and paternity leaves in Brazil are short and access
to them is unequally distributed in society. A short guide
on how to discuss parental leave in Brazil.
Maternity leave exists in almost every country, with only a few exceptions - the USA being the most prominent of them. Its duration varies a lot according to region, and it is usually well paid, in most cases, the woman keeps her full salary. Maternity leaves were developed to preserve maternal health at the end of pregnancy and after childbirth, but also to ensure some kind of economic security for her children. Therefore, job protection is a key component, so that employers cannot dismiss pregnant or puerperal women. It is usually compulsory, precisely because it focuses on health.
Paternity leave, on the other hand, exists in only 48% of countries(1) - and in most of them for only a few days (Brazil, for example, has 5 days). It was thought as a way to allow men to be present at childbirth and the following days - but not to include them in childcare.
Finally, parental leave is a period of paid absence from work for anyone who has just had a child - and comes directly after maternity leave. It is usually gender-neutral (which means that both women and men can request it) and flexible (parents get to decide how long they go into leave and whether they will use it simultaneously or separately). According to the International Labor Organization, 66 countries have some kind of parental leave - but only Chile and Cuba in Latin America(2).
Brazil does not have any parental leave. There is a fully paid four-months maternity leave for women with regular job contracts. Civil servants and women hired by companies registered at the “Empresa Cidadã”-program get six months of leave. (But only 12% of companies are actually registered for the program, in which tax deductions pay for the extra two months). Similarly, men are entitled to five or twenty days of paternity leave when their children are born. Adoptive mothers have the same rights as biological mothers, and the benefit only gets transferred to fathers in case of maternal death.
Mothers can choose whether to take the leave four weeks before the due date or only after delivery - but any period taken before birth is deducted from the total time. Maternity leave in Brazil is not necessarily a short one compared to other countries - if, and only if, it were followed by parental leave. At the current status, with only 4 months of paid absence for most women, it is almost impossible for women to breastfeed their babies exclusively for 6 months, as it is suggested by the World Health Organization.
The situation is even worse for men. Most fathers in Brazil do not take paternity leave because of lack of information, traditional gender expectations and fear of retaliation at work. Only 32% of men who are entitled to paternity leave actually stay home for 5 days - and less than 1% of them stay 20 days, the maximum time period allowed by law(3).
Not all women in Brazil have a right to maternity leave. Only employees hired in jobs covered by the Consolidated Labor Laws (CLT) or those who contribute voluntarily to Social Security are entitled to maternity and paternity leave - which excludes more than 40% of all economically active population in Brazil, who are in informal jobs. Unemployed people are only entitled to the benefit up to one year after they left their last “official” employment.
Any discussion about maternity and parental leave in Brazil, however, has to be racialized and looked from an intersectional point of view. Jobs with regular contracts are not distributed equally throughout the population, and are less common for women of colour, indigenous population and rural workers - the majority of women.
In Brazil, official statistics about race and ethnicity are based on a self-assessment system compiled by the national Census. People can define themselves as “preto” (black), “pardo” (approximately “brown”), “branco” (white), “amarelo” (yellow) and “indígena” (indigenous). The distribution is following - white: 45,22%, brown: 45,06%, black: 8,86%, yellow: 0,47%, indigenous: 0,38%. This system is in place to expose economic and social inequalities according to race and ethnicity and is used in overall national statistics.
Informal jobs are more common in the mentioned “black” and “brown” populations: 47% of them don’t have jobs covered by social security, which means that they don’t have access to maternity or paternity leave(4). (Against 32% of white Brazilians in the same situation.)
Brazil also has another particularity: it is the country with the biggest number of domestic workers in the world. These are 5,7 million people - but especially women - who work as nannies, cooks, cleaners, babysitters and who are, in most part, not covered by social security laws. Two out of three female domestic workers in Brazil are brown or black. Women of color are also amongst the most vulnerable populations in times of economic crisis, which is currently the case in Brazil. For every 1%-increase in the unemployment rate, their unemployment rate rises 1.5%(6).
This is to say that it is impossible to discuss parental leave in Brazil without taking into consideration the intersections of race and class. Public policies in Brazil have to look into those particularities, and not only copy models from other countries. As Sueli Carneiro, philosopher and black feminist writer, says:
We are part of a contingent of women who worked for centuries as slaves in the fields and on the streets, as saleswomen, cooks, prostitutes... Women who didn’t understand anything when feminists said they should take the streets and work! (...) When they talk about guaranteeing the same job opportunities for men and women, they are worrying about employment for what kind of women?(7).
For many Brazilians, parental leave is still a distant discussion. 5,5 million children in Brazil don’t have their father’s names on the birth certificate, for example. A survey by Ipsos found that 26% of people believe that taking care of children would make fathers "less manly”. Thus, it is safe to say that not all men are actually interested in staying home when their kids are born.
In 2015, only 42% of Brazilian families were composed of parents + children (a drop of 8% since 2005). Of families with children, 27% consist of women raising their children alone. Not all of these children, of course, are babies: 88% of children between 0 and 4 actually live with two adults (though not necessarily a father and a mother). In other words, including only mothers and fathers in the discussion of parental leave would exclude a big part of the Brazilian population.
Thus, it would be sensible to adopt a model of "caregivers" instead of "parents", so that other relatives or close people can take the leave. Grandparents, of course, would be the main beneficiaries of this change. In Germany, for example, grandparents can take parental leave if the children's parents are under 18, if they are still students, or if neither of them takes the leave. In the event of the death or serious illness of the parents, other relatives can also claim the benefit.
In Germany, all new parents can take parental leave, including unemployed and people who don’t pay taxes. Any German father or mother gets a minimum of 300 euros over at least 12 months (which is well below the minimum wage, around 1,500 euros). A universal parental leave compensation could help tackle, for example, the high number of Brazilian workers who don’t have a right to the benefit. This would also mean a societal recognition that building a new generation is actually a collective responsibility - and not only a woman’s work.
In recent years, many judicial decisions have extended parental leave rights to previously excluded groups in Brazil. These sporadic decisions are important in creating jurisprudence. Just to name a few:
Same-sex parents can apply for the 4-months maternity leave, but only one partner can use it.
Single adoptive fathers also have a right to maternity leave.
In 2018, Congress decided that grandparents may apply for paternity leave if the baby’s father is unknown.
Adoptive fathers may also take maternity leave in case the mother is unemployed - biological fathers, though, don’t have this right.
Several bills trying to create parental leave have also made their way into Congress in recent years. Most of them propose a flexibilization of those who can take the leave. They usually propose that the first 3 months continue to be exclusively for women, but that the last 3 could be split between parents according to their own wishes. This, of course, would be good news without huge economic impact.
1. VAN DER GAAG, N., HEILMAN, B., GUPTA, T., NEMBHARD, C., and BARKER, G. (2019). State of the World’s Fathers: Unlocking the Power of Men’s Care. Washington, DC: Promundo-US. p. 33
2. FOGUEL, Miguel. FRANCA, Maria Penha. A sensibilidade do desemprego às condições da economia para diferentes grupos de trabalhadores. In: “Mercado de trabalho : conjuntura e análise / Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada; Ministério do Trabalho”, 2018
3. CARNEIRO, Sueli. Enegrecer o feminismo: a situação da mulher negra na América Latina a partir de uma perspectiva de gênero. In: ASHOKA EMPREENDEDORES SOCIAIS; TAKANO CIDADANIA. (Orgs.). Racismos contemporâneos. Rio de Janeiro: Takano Editora, 2003.
4. Aspectos dos cuidados das crianças de menos de 4 anos de idade : 2015 / IBGE, Coordenação de Trabalho e Rendimento. – Rio de Janeiro : IBGE, 2017.
Neste e nos outros textos do projeto, a Alemanha é referenciada como comparação, porque a pesquisa foi conduzida na Universidade Livre de Berlim, como parte do German Chancellor Fellowship, da Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung.