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Irish Independent, Tuesday May 29 2012

Equality for all -- unless you're a dad

Why is discrimination against fathers so widely acceptable -- and what's being done about it, asks Cathal Garvey -- Equality Minister

Discrimination against women in our society is generally not accepted, with regular calls for gender quotas in Dail Eireann, more women in boardroom positions along with criticism of the gender pay gap.

Most of this discrimination is caused by the fact that society continues to rely on women to carry the burden of childcare.

The Dail is a difficult place to work if you live in a rural constituency and are required to stay away from the family home three nights a week, but virtually impossible for a mother of young children who has taken on the main childcare responsibilities of the family.

It is extremely difficult for a mother to rise through the ranks to the higher echelons of any employment if her children, rather than her career, are her priority -- and any job that allows the flexibility required to bring the children to school and collect them in the early afternoon is bound to be less well paid than any similar 9-to-5 position.

Given that such discrimination could be alleviated, if not totally obliterated, by society viewing the care of children by their parents as being a responsibility to be shared by both parents, rather than just mothers, why is nothing done to accommodate families to share parenting between mothers and fathers?

It is well known that fathers fare badly in the family courts, with a recent study by Dr Evelyn Mahon and Elena Moore of the School of Social Work, TCD, indicating that: "Of the 87 cases of separation and divorce analysed in the present research, joint custody awards were made in 70 cases," she wrote, but that 'joint custody' meant that the children stayed with the mother in 63 of these cases.

However, other not-so-obvious discrimination is also present. For example, an adoptive mother can avail of exactly the same maternity leave as a mother who has been through a pregnancy. But what about the father?

According to the Minister for Equality: "There is currently no general entitlement to paternity leave in Irish law. Both the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000 contain savers for other enactments, including the Adoptive Leave Act and Maternity Protection Acts."

Also, a recent decision by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg found that an unmarried father had no rights in relation to his children despite living with them for 10 years.

So, is there any likelihood of change? The Law Reform Commission did offer hope by recommending that unmarried fathers be granted automatic guardianship.

However, what they did not disclose in their press release was a recommendation that "a general statutory requirement to consult should not be included in legislation concerning parental responsibility" and so the current gender-equal and constitutional position of parents acting jointly is likely to abolished.

Will the Equality Minister accept this recommendation? Well, he has said that: "My personal experience prior to becoming minister, as a lawyer dealing professionally with family law matters, was that one of the big difficulties in this area is that many fathers do not take responsibility for their children.

"Indeed, many of them do not seek to form and cement relationships with their children, or to involve themselves in their children's lives."

So much for equality!

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