Fathers gain greater rights in child custody battles


The Czech Republic has a high divorce rate. Even though property nearly always becomes an issue, the biggest problem is often the custody of children. In most cases in the Czech Republic mothers are given full custody, only in 7 or 8 percent of cases is it the father. But now it seems that a decision of the Czech Constitutional Court could bring a crucial change.

The Constitutional Court complied with an appeal by a Mr Slavicek who complained about a decision by a lower court. The previous court decision had limited his contact with his children only to every second weekend, but the Constitutional Court ruled that courts should be less reluctant when deciding about shared custody between divorced parents.

Many Czech fathers feel discriminated by court decisions, and many of them have appealed to higher instances, even to European Court of Justice in Strasbourg. But Lubos Patera from the Justice for Children Association says it is not the legislation but deeply rooted stereotypes that determine the courts' decisions.

"The legislation is good. Regarding the care of children laws do not discriminate either of the two parents. Even the general public understands the problem. It is confirmed by public opinion polls. Unfortunately the problem is in the wrong application of the law, and in the attitude of judges. Most judges in these cases are women."

The most common practice is that mothers get full custody of their children, and the fathers have the right to see them once every two weeks. But many fathers are unsatisfied with this situation. They would like shared custody to be applied more often. One father, who wished to remain anonymous, achieved this goal, but it took him six long years.

"Initially it was very wild separation. My son was abducted by my wife and I was looking for him for a couple of months. I was advised by my lawyer not only to find my son, but also to abduct him to get some attention from the court. Because my lawyer told me that under Czech law there is actually no other way to attract attention from the court than this. That's what I did, but after two months my wife had my son back again. That's the first period of a very tenuous and terrible legal battle that went on for six years, in which eventually shared custody was achieved."

Michaela Marksova Tominova from the Social Affairs Ministry says that the current situation is rooted in the widely held prejudice that a mother will always take better care of a child than a father.

"Actually I discussed this matter with some social workers and judges, and I was told that if the judge is not able to decide, they somehow feel that the mother is always responsible. The truth is that it's just a feeling - just a stereotype. But I think there is also another aspect. If you still have this gender division of tasks, and if the father is the main breadwinner and the mother is the one who takes the child to the school etc, then probably the judges feel secure to give the child to the mother."

Although in many areas of social life it is women who are discriminated, when it comes to custody of children in divorced families, it is men who are complaining about unequal treatment. Attitudes towards the role of the genders are changing rapidly in the Czech Republic, and with them, long-held stereotypes are also gradually being undermined.