Czech mothers can now decide how long they spend on maternity leave

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As of the beginning of this year, a new package of social reforms has come into effect here in the Czech Republic, introducing major changes related to child care. Until recently, mothers had been receiving parental allowance in regular instalments over a period of three years. Now, the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry has introduced a new system intended to give parents more flexibility in combining work and child-care, by giving them freedom of choice.

Within the first six months of their maternity leave, they have to decide which type of parental allowance they want to draw. Parents are free to choose between a two-year parental leave with a monthly contribution of 11,400 crowns, a three-year parental leave with a monthly contribution of 7,600 crowns or a four-year leave with a monthly contribution of 7,600 which is reduced to 3,800 when the child reaches 21 months of age. In short, the longer time they want to spend at home with their child the less money they get.

Rút Kolínská, who heads a network of Mother Centres, says that despite some minor faults it is definitely a change for the better.

“After more than eighteen years of freedom the family policy in this country has finally started to change. After the fall of communism the country suddenly shifted from a state family policy that was based on looking after people to a policy where the family was considered a private entity in which the state shouldn’t intervene. Now we are moving to a more moderate stance. I think that the government has finally realized that it is necessary to create conditions where parents and families can make their own choice.”

According to Mrs Kolínská, the reform has set up an efficient model, but bringing the changes into effect will be another matter. Still, she says, the new system will make it easier for mothers to pursue a career and it could also succeed in involving more fathers in child-care:

“It would be better to choose from even more possibilities. I think the new system is attractive especially for those parents who want to return to work as soon as possible. But I still think there is a choice for mothers from across the whole social spectrum. I deliberately don’t mention fathers because there aren’t many fathers in this country who stay at home to look after the children, although things are gradually improving. I hope that this new model of drawing parental allowance could involve more fathers in childcare. Perhaps in families where mothers make more than fathers the fathers will agree to stay at home for the shortest, two-year period. So I think it could help in this way.”

With her first child, who has just turned seven, Magda Kudláčková experienced the old system, when she stayed at home for three years and then returned to work:

“I started working when my first son was three. I worked for two years as an English teacher. I taught children from ten or eleven to fifteen. And then, when Mikuláš was about nine months, I started giving private lessons, but then I had to quit because the children were often sick.”

Now, it is up to her and her husband to decide how long she should stay at home with their youngest child and what type of instalments they want to draw.

“I decided to stay at home for three years, because by the end of that time I will have been at home for five years altogether and I think that’s really enough. I will see. It also depends on the children’s health because some children tend to be sick very often when they start going to kinder-garden and some aren’t. But I think that three years at home with the youngest child is enough.”

And have you considered the first possibility? Two years? It only concerns mothers who earn more than sixteen thousand?

“Not me.”

So you couldn’t go for the first possibility even if you wanted.

“That’s right. But I think I wouldn’t.”

The new system has only been in practice for two weeks. So far it appears that most mothers prefer to stay at home for three years. The shortest, two-year leave with the highest instalments is by far the least popular. Authorities say this is because many mothers don’t have the required net income of 16.400 crowns. This is also the case of Marta Mlejnková:

“My name is Marta and I work as a language teacher for a language school here in Prague. I am not married yet. Maybe I will get married in one or two years. I don’t know yet. And my partner works in Prague as well. He works for the Statistical office.”

And the important thing is that you are expecting a baby…

“Yes. It is due in May, so it is getting closer. I am looking forward to it. I can’t get the first option, because after tax return my average income is not high enough to allow the first option. And I think the third one, four years, is too long, and of course the money is not so good. So I think we’ll take the middle one, which is 7,600 crowns a month. It’s for three years and I would like to stay at home for the first two years and then my partner would take over and stay with the baby for the last year, which I think is a good thing because the baby can experience father care.”

According to Marta Mlejnková, financial support given by the state, including a birth grant of 13,000 crowns is not insignificant:

“You can buy a lot with thirteen thousand crowns. You can buy a pram and a cot so I think it is very useful.”

As a self-employed person, however, she won’t receive high maternity leave payments and without her partner, it would be quite difficult to make ends meet:

Well, I will receive the minimum because I work on a so-called work certificate and I did not pay much in taxes in the previous two years so it won’t be too high. But I will still get 7,600 crowns for the first six months which means I will rely quite a lot on help from my partner in the first six months.”

According to Rút Kolínská from the network of Mother Centres, parents should ideally decide not according to their economic situation but according to their children’s needs. Some critics say, however, that this is impossible for single or socially disadvantaged mothers, arguing that the reform only suits women who are well-off or women who want to pursue their career. It is probably too early to tell, but judging by the first two weeks since the reforms were introduced, many parents need more information and others feel that there is still space for improvement.