In May 2017, Larissa Waters, an Australian member of Parliament made headlines across the world when she breastfed her two-month old daughter in parliament.
She also became the first MP to benefit from the new “family friendly” rules effected in 2016 for Australian parliamentarians, that specifically allowed MPs who are breastfeeding to bring their children into parliament chambers. This was in stark contrast to an incident that had happened more than a decade earlier, where a female MP was ejected from the same parliament for breastfeeding her daughter in the chambers.
A lot has changed with regards to the wellbeing of women at the workplace; however, gender inequality is still a persisting global problem. Workplace issues such as gender pay gap, sexual harassment, discrimination during hiring and promotions just to name a few, are still rampant all over the world.
A study conducted by McKinsey and Lean In in 2018 revealed that although companies report that they are committed to gender diversity at work, that commitment has not translated into any meaningful progress.
According to the World Bank, the competing demands of the workplace and raising children places a “penalty” on almost all female workers. These competing needs lead women to make trade-offs especially during a child’s infancy which is when they require intense supervision.
Evidently, there is a dire need for both governmental and private institutions to adopt and implement family- friendly policies which will allow for balancing women’s time between work and family, without having to choose one or the other.
This year, to mark World Breastfeeding week, the World Health Organisation, (WHO) is working with Unicef and its partners to promote the importance of family-friendly policies at the workplace to enable breastfeeding and help parents nurture and bond with their children in early life.
The benefits of breastfeeding to both a mother and her child are huge. An increase in breastfeeding to near-universal levels could save more than 800,000 lives every year, the majority being children under six months.
This is key in reducing infant mortality rate in order to achieve SDG goal 3; by 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births. Additionally, breastfeeding also helps in decreasing the risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease for mothers.
One can now see why it is crucial that WHO promotes family friendly policies including enacting paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks, and paid paternity leave to encourage shared responsibility.
It is also recommended that mothers have access to a parent-friendly workplace to protect and support their ability to continue breastfeeding upon return to work by having access to breastfeeding breaks; a safe, private, and hygienic space for expressing and storing breastmilk; and affordable childcare.
Indeed, creating a friendly workplace for women can deliver positive results by boosting productivity and helping employees nurture healthy families.
The writer is group human resource director, EABL