Parental leave in the UN: Where do we stand?
Inclusive parental leave is not only a women’s issue. Standardized parental leave is a key component in creating a more enabling environment
1 May 2022

“Inclusive parental leave is not only a women’s issue. Standardized parental leave, as indicated in the SG’s System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity, is a key component of creating a more enabling environment.” (1)

Secretary-General António Guterres launched the System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity in September 2017, including a call to replace maternity/paternity/adoption leave policies with one parental leave, equal in length, applied equally to opposite and same-sex spouses and partners (3). Nearly five years since the launch, the progress on parental leave reform within the UN common system remains stagnant.

The International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), composed of 15 members appointed by the UN General Assembly, is ultimately responsible for making recommendations on parental leave policies for adoption by the General Assembly and the governing bodies of the organizations within the UN common system of salaries, allowances and benefits (3). Although the ICSC established a working group in 2019 to review parental leave benefits, a proposal has not yet been made by the working group to the ICSC. Nonetheless, some organizations have led the change in implementing additional leave policies to augment the parental policy currently afforded within the UN common system.

In this article, we examine the current parental policies of organizations within the UN common system (4), highlighting some of the leading policies on the length of parental leave, inclusivity, and broader family friendly policies such as special accommodations for non-family duty stations, multiple births, breastfeeding, duty travel with infants, flexible working arrangements, and family emergency leave.

What are the current maternity and paternity leave policies?

A broad review of parental leave policies across the UN system shows that entitlements vary based on the gender and how the staff became a parent (i.e., maternity, paternity, or adoption). The total length of leave granted for maternity or paternity leave also varies across different organizations. Nevertheless, paternity leave is generally considerably shorter than maternity leave, perpetuating gender imbalance and stereotypes in the workplace.

Under the present United Nations common system of salaries, allowances and benefits (5), maternity leave, which has not been adjusted since 1979, grants 16 weeks of leave with full pay. The 16-week leave period normally commences six weeks prior to the expected due date, leaving only around 10 weeks for the post-delivery period. Furthermore, sick leave is generally not granted during maternity leave, except in case of serious complications.

Paternity leave, which was introduced in 2004, is granted for a much shorter period, up to four weeks for staff serving at headquarters and family duty stations, and up to eight weeks for staff serving at non-family duty stations (6). The current policies generally lack additional support for single parents, although some organizations (7) grant an additional four weeks of paternity leave in exceptional circumstances, such as incapacity or death of the mother. These entitlements fall considerably short of the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation to exclusively breastfeed and bond with the child for the first six months of life (8).

Recent developments show a trend in organizations implementing additional leave entitlements to enhance parental leave provided under the UN common system. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, WHO, and most recently, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) have supplemented the standard 16-week maternity leave with an additional eight weeks of Special Leave With Full Pay (SLWFP), totaling 24 weeks. Similarly, most of the above organizations have also extended the same additional eight-week SLWFP benefits to paternity leave—a progressive step towards equal treatment for fathers.

Notwithstanding the positive trends highlighted above, the 16-week maternity and four-week paternity leave remain the norm within the UN system, including at the UN Secretariat, whose employees constitute the majority of UN staff.

Working parents need to adapt their lifestyle to respond to their children’s needs

How inclusive are the current parental policies?

The existing parental policies within the UN system fail to reflect present social norms and advances in reproductive technology. While most organizations within the UN common system provide leave entitlements to adoptive parents, they generally lack provisions that apply to same-sex spouses/partners or staff who become parents through surrogacy. Thus, it is unclear whether a non-gestating mother in a same-gender relationship, or a mother who relies on surrogacy would be entitled to any leave benefits under the current practice, since maternity leave typically requires a medical certificate confirming the mother’s pregnancy. Furthermore, in most organizations the same parental benefits are generally not extended to temporary staff and other non-staff personnel.

Regarding adoption leave, the United Nations common system of salaries, allowances and benefits is silent as to the length of leave and recommends that the length be established by the executive heads of the organizations (9). Most organizations grant adoption leave for up to eight weeks, with UNHCR providing ten weeks (10). For organizations like UNAIDS, UNHCR, UNICEF, UN Women, WHO, and WIPO who have recently updated their policies to offer an additional eight weeks of SLWFP for maternity and paternity leave, the same SLWFP benefit was also extended for adoption and surrogacy leave, resulting in wider-reaching policies (11).

In a further step towards inclusion and equity, several organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNICEF, UNAIDS, UN Women and WIPO have recently modified their policies to provide equal leave benefits to non-gestating parents irrespective both of how the staff became a parent and of the staff’s gender identity, while granting additional time to gestating parents to meet pre- and post-delivery physical needs. Other organizations like WHO and UNHCR have implemented express provisions to grant surrogacy leave equal to adoption leave, while maintaining separate paternity leave entitlements.

The practice across the UN system is varied regarding parental leave benefits for staff holding temporary appointments. While organizations generally do provide some parental leave benefits to staff on temporary appointment, the length of leave may be considerably shorter than the leave granted to staff on fixed-term appointments, or the conditions required for leave may otherwise prevent staff on temporary appointments from the leave benefit. For example, UNHCR grants paternity leave to temporary staff only if the staff member continuously served for a minimum of six months prior to birth and is expected to serve a minimum of three months on return from paternity leave. Moreover, UNHCR does not provide adoption or surrogacy leave to temporary staff. Some organizations which grant additional SLWFP exclude such a benefit to staff holding temporary appointments. Most organizations do not provide any parental leave benefits to non-staff personnel.

While some of the aforementioned organizations began paving the way for more inclusive parental policies, the UN common system still maintains leave policies based on gender and the mode of becoming parents, resulting in discriminatory practices against staff who become parents with same-gender partners/spouses or through surrogacy.

Do the parental policies provide additional support?

Broader family friendly policies enable staff to effectively balance personal and professional commitments. In this context, certain organizations within the UN system provide additional support for non-family duty stations, multiple births, breastfeeding, duty travel with infant, and flexible working arrangements. Exemplary policies are highlighted below.

a. Staff serving in non-family duty stations

For staff serving in non-family high-risk duty stations (D or E hardship level), certain organizations provide additional benefits to ensure proximity to essential medical facilities and safe travel out of the duty station in line with airline restrictions for travel during pregnancy. For example, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Women grant additional special leave with full pay for eight weeks before the commencement of maternity leave, while UNHCR authorizes travel out of D or E duty stations for female staff as of the 32nd week of pregnancy, bearing the cost of travel. Further, under the UN common system, an additional four weeks of paternity leave is granted for male staff serving in D or E duty stations.

b. Multiple births

In the case of multiple births, some organizations like IOM, UNAIDS and WHO grant additional leave. For example, UNAIDS and WHO provide an additional four weeks of maternity leave, WHO also grants four additional weeks of paternity leave, and UNAIDS and WHO both grant two additional weeks for adoption or surrogacy leave. IOM provides four additional weeks to all parents in case of multiple births.

c. Breastfeeding and bonding

Consistent with the WHO recommendation to exclusively breastfeed for at least the first six months of life, most organizations provide two hours off per day to breast or bottle-feed, or to express milk away from the office until the child is at least one year old, and up to two years old for some organizations. UNAIDS, UNHCR and WHO have notably extended the same benefit following adoption or surrogacy. In case of multiple births, UNDP allows thirty minutes more for each additional infant. As an alternative to daily time off, UNHCR allows the staff to aggregate the time and take one day and two hours off per week until the child’s first birthday. Further, the UN Secretariat, UNDP and WIPO policies contain provisions that allow staff to bring the child to work to breastfeed on demand.

d. Duty travel with infant

Many organizations, including the UN Secretariat, permit the breastfeeding staff to bring a child up to the two years of age (12) on official business travel, except to non-family duty stations. Organizations generally provide a lump sum equivalent to 10 percent of the cost of the staff member’s ticket, plus 10 percent of the staff member’s daily subsistence allowance. However, no financial support is provided for any additional person traveling to care for the child or for babysitting during working hours. While duty travel with an infant is generally limited to female breastfeeding staff for most organizations, UNICEF and WIPO also permit a single parent staff (father or mother) to travel with the child until two years old for UNICEF and one year old for WIPO.

e. Flexible working arrangements and family emergency leave

With the recent developments in parental leave policies, many organizations have adopted a more flexible approach to parental leave, allowing staff to combine parental leave with part-time work, provided that staff have completed the minimum six-week post-delivery maternity leave. Such a trend offers greater flexibility for staff to plan their leave based on personal and family needs. Moreover, most organizations permit staff to use uncertified sick days for family emergencies, such as illness in the family.


As Secretary-General Guterres noted, achieving gender parity throughout the UN System is “not just about numbers but about transforming our institutional culture so that we can access and capitalize on our full potential.” Gender parity is not attainable without family friendly policies, standardized across the UN system that enhance inclusivity, embrace equality, and reduce gender-related bias and discrimination. Inclusive parental leave is a key component in creating a more enabling environment.

UN organizations hold a special responsibility in leading by example and inspiring change. While some organizations have taken charge in augmenting parental leave benefits, the current policy under the UN common system still perpetuates gender stereotypes, impacts families negatively and reinforces existing gender inequalities in our workplace.

U.N. Parents advocates for family friendly policy reforms within the UN system and, beyond that, promotes equal responsibilities and active participation by both parents in raising the future generation.

It is high time.

(1) Supplementary Guidance On The Enabling Environment Guidelines

(2) See the UN System-wide strategy on gender parity, p.35. 

(3) The UN common system is made of the UN Secretariat, UN Funds and Programmes (UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP), Specialized Agencies (FAO, ICAO, IFAD, ILO, IMO, ITU, UNESCO, UNIDO, UNWTO, UPU, WHO, WIPO, WMO), other entities and bodies (UNAIDS, UNHCR, UNITAR, UNOPS, UNRWA, UNSSC, UNU, UN Women) and other related agencies (CTBTO, IAEA, IOM, ITC, UNFCCC).

(4) The common system represents common standards, methods and arrangements being applied to salaries, allowances and benefits for the staff of the United Nations, designed to avoid discrepancies in terms and conditions of employment, to avoid competition in recruitment of personnel and to facilitate the interchange of personnel. It applies to over 52,000 staff members serving at over 600 duty stations.

(5) United Nations common system of salaries, allowances and benefits booklet, February 2022.

(6) UN system duty station to which staff cannot bring their family to live with them, as opposed to family duty station, as determined by the ICSC.

(7) For example, the UN Secretariat, UNHCR, and WHO.

(8) World Health Organization (WHO), document WHA65/2012/REC/1, resolution WHA65.6.

(9) United Nations common system of salaries, allowances and benefits booklet, February 2022.

(10) Note that under the UN system, biological fathers are generally granted only four weeks under paternity leave, whereas adoptive fathers are granted eight weeks under adoption leave.

(11) Note for example, UNHCR offers ten weeks of adoption and surrogacy leave with additional eight SLWFP, totaling 18 weeks.

(12) One year old for certain organizations like UNHCR and WIPO.

* "U.N. Parents: Equal Rights Equal Roles” is an informal group of staff and non-staff across duty stations, intending to suggest reforms to the UN parental leave policy and advocate for more child-centered family policies across the UN system.
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