VILNIUS - Tending the cradle through the night or changing a newborn's diapers should no longer be a mother's exclusive obligation, the Office of Equal Opportunities Ombudsman argued in Parliament this week.
One of the Baltics' more original initiatives in recent years, the office has launched a new project - Modern Men in an Enlarged Europe - that will try to encourage men to empathize with their wives and contribute more time to sharing the burden of infant rearing.
Statistics show that only 1 percent of the country's men bother to exercise their right to paternity leave. Generally, they are not exceptional in this regard - a majority of men in the EU are aware that they have a right to parental leave yet don't use it. German, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish fathers tend to be equally reluctant to baby-sit, according to the a Euroborometer survey released last year, while Swedish, Danish and Finnish men showed the most interest in taking time off work to focus on fatherhood.
Curiously, Icelandic men are Europe's most enthusiastic fathers - more than 80 percent of men there take time off to help care for newborn babies.
The main factors discouraging fathers from staying at home to look after a newborn are financial inconvenience and occupational concerns. The Eurobarometer survey showed that insufficient financial compensation was the strongest deterrent.
Lithuania's Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman, together with foreign partners in Denmark, Iceland and Malta that are co-managing the project, hope to change the situation drastically. In fact, office representatives have argued that financial concerns are not necessarily the key factor for "poor father performance" in the Baltic country, since during parental leave one receives 70 percent of his or her previous salary.
By contrast, negative stereotyping and strict role division between men and women are more influential factors, according to the office's information. Most Lithuanian men regard parental leave as something for women, and only those with a university degree and "a contemporary perception" exercise their paternity leave.
Under the ombudsmen office's auspices, various projects will be conducted in 2005 to promote "modern-man qualities," one of which will be family values. The initiative will include publishing information and books, administering seminars and conducting media campaigns.
The European Commission will finance 80 percent of the project, while the Lithuanian government has already allocated another 70,000 litas (20,000 euros).
Another initiative to improve the gender equality situation was taken on Jan. 17 when ombudswomen Ausrine Burneikiene requested Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas to consider paternity leave opportunities and to take some time off for his future newborn. The mayor's wife, Agne Zuokiene, is expected to give birth to their third child in late January.
Zuokas responded that he intended to discuss the suggestion with his family, but he said a year-long break was certainly out of question. Thankfully for the mayor, the law does provide for taking shorter leaves.
"This is a radical decision, and one cannot take it spontaneously. Every mayor's minute is pricey, but he could perhaps deliberate a one- or two-week leave," said Valdas Dambrava, assistant to the equal opportunity ombudsman.
Ombudsmen claimed that if men were more responsive in taking the time off, society would ultimately gain more in terms of increased tolerance, equality and understanding. Family life would become more balanced and stronger.
"A recently conducted survey in Sweden showed that paternity leave decreases divorce risk. A woman is withdrawn from work for shorter periods, and she does not loose qualification during maternity leave. This has positive affects for society," Burneikiene said.