unicef child

Four children look out an open window, Bangladesh (UNICEF, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)


Family friendly policies are everybody’s business. They not only benefit children, parents and families — they represent one of the best investments governments and businesses can make.

Science tells us that a child’s first 1,000 days is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape their brain and increase his or her ability, as an adult, to contribute productively to the economy and society.

Parents and caregivers have a huge role to play in providing this support. Their babies’ bodies and brains are counting on them to give them the best start in life.

But while parents want time to bond with their children and give them the protection, nutrition and stimulation their developing brains need, many just don’t have the time because of the pressure to work long hours, often far from home, to support their families.

Family-friendly policies help relieve that pressure. They give parents and caregivers opportunities to balance work and home life — to provide financial resources for their families as they bond with and care for their little ones.

Europe leads the way in parental leave

Europe leads the way in parental leave
Image: The Economist / OECD

Programmes like breastfeeding breaks and support, affordable, quality childcare, child benefits and paid parental leave can help busy families make ends meet while caring for their youngest members.

Any upfront investments are paid off in healthier, better-educated girls and boys, a better-equipped workforce, and more sustainable growth for nations.

There is, literally, no better start in life for a baby — and no better way for governments and businesses to future-proof their human capital and economic growth potential.

Consider parental leave, for example. Research has indicated:

– One month of maternal leave can prevent a 3% decline in infant mortality in high-income countries — and 13% in low and middle-income countries. These policies save lives.

– One month of parental leave increases the duration of breastfeeding by two months. These policies boost health.

– One month of extended maternal leave reduces a child’s chances of suffering from diarrhea by 35%. These policies can reduce health care costs and absenteeism.

– And Swedish research found that, when fathers take parental leave, mothers can expect a 7% boost in income. These policies promote female economic empowerment.

There is also a cost to inaction. It can cost up to 20% of a worker’s salary to replace employees who leave — so a company’s bottom line takes the hit. Yet when these policies are offered, businesses see lower staff turnover and greater staff retention.

Despite these clear benefits, only 30% of countries offer maternal leave as per International Labor Organization (ILO) standards. And two-thirds of children under the age of one live in countries where their fathers are not entitled by law to a single day of paid paternity leave.

This issue affects developing and developed countries alike. Last month, UNICEF issued a report that ranked the world’s richest countries based on their family-friendly policies. Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, UK, the US and Ireland ranked lowest.

That’s why UNICEF is advocating for four transformative shifts in support of families with young children:

1) A shift from maternal to paternal leave so both parents bond with their baby and support each other in caregiving;

2) A shift from infrastructure to people so that when parents take this leave there is no discrimination against them before childbirth, during parental leave or after they return to the workplace;

3) A shift from individual to co-responsibility so that we remove the burden for childcare from the shoulders of parents alone, and see it, rather, as a shared responsibility between governments, businesses and families so that parents are better supported with time and resources; and

4) A shift from reducing parenting stress to enhancing family wellbeing so that we see more positive outcomes for children.

We need to support the people who do the most important job in the world.

Please join us to call on the world’s leaders — in government and in the private sector — for greater investment in family-friendly policies.

It’s about time.