After the birth of my daughter, a combination of the strong bond I had developed with her and my choice and commitment to at least six months of exclusive breastfeeding meant that I was stressed about returning to work.

Thankfully, my fears were allayed by a strong support system that helped with the transition and supported my goals. Advancements such as improved legislation on parental leave and nursing care, allocation of nursing rooms, breastfeeding breaks and institutional mechanisms for redressing grievances are some of the progressive arrangements that have been adopted in the workplace to recognise breastfeeding as a woman’s right.

In 2004, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) launched the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) to assess and monitor key breastfeeding policies and programmes. One inherent strength of the process is that it brings together actors working on various issues on one platform, and since then, IBFAN reports that the collaborative efforts have resulted in improved maternity protection measures in many countries.

One of the areas that has signified progress in many countries is legislation on maternity leave. While the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recommends a minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity benefit for women, many countries have gone above and beyond this. In India, for example, the National Maternity Benefit Act 1961 was amended to increase maternity leave to 26 weeks from existing 12 weeks for employees in organized sector. The revised Act also provides Crèche facilities in workplaces with more than 50 employees and flexibility to work from home.

Despite marked progress, there remains a lot of ground to cover. The National Union of Bank Employees (NUBE) in Malaysia highlights the lack of awareness of women’s rights. NUBE launched the Maternity Leave campaign in 2010 to incorporate the right to 90-days paid maternity leave into a Collective Agreement with employers in the banking industry. Building on its success, NUBE now engages with a wide group of stakeholders to extend this provision to benefit women workers in the industry. By reiterating the importance of breastfeeding, they continue to educate young mothers about their rights at work particularly child care and lactation rights.

Similarly, the Centre for Research on Women and Gender (KANITA) at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) works to address the issue of women exercising their rights to maternity protection. These include prenatal issues such as protection from employment dismissal while pregnant and postnatal matters such as breastfeeding and reasonable child care facilities while working. KANITA collaborated with Middlesex University to identify gaps and map research areas of maternity protection and implementation in Malaysia.

“The research is novel in many ways as it aims to open pathways to deeper studies that will continue to build the business case for institutionalizing and expanding the scope of comprehensive maternity protection at the workplace.” – KANITA

Finally, there is need to recognize, reduce and redistribute care work that is primarily done by women and girls. In no country in the world, regardless of the level of development, do men and women do an equal amount of care work. MenCare, a global fatherhood campaign with partners in over 40 countries on five continents, emphasize: 

“Full equality will not be reached at home or in the workforce until men and boys globally take on 50 percent of the unpaid care and domestic work.”

They highlight that care work being undervalued both socially and economically and thought of traditionally as ‘women’s work’ is problematic. As an advocacy strategy, MenCare launched the first ever State of the World’s Fathers report in 2015, providing a global view of the state of men’s contribution to parenting and caregiving around the world, which has inspired multiple translations, national reports and advocacy.

From the research and advocacy work required to legislate maternity protection, to education and information dissemination targeting attitude change and shift in social norms, to integrating women’s issues in the undertakings of trade unions – efforts to make workplaces more breastfeeding friendly and thus empower women to breastfeed and work can only be achieved through multi-level partnerships. 

World Breastfeeding Week takes place from 1 – 7 August 2017. Celebrating collaboration and sustainability, it will focus on the need to work together to sustain breastfeeding. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has created an online platform with downloadable resources available in a range of languages to support individuals and organizations in their own campaigning and advocacy. 

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