NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 22 – At the end of her maternity leave, Mercy Wanja had to ask herself tough questions. How would she breastfeed her 3-month-old son exclusively while working an 8-5 job? How could she keep her milk supply up while working despite being away from her son for so many hours? Would she be able to pump milk while at work and if so, where would she store the breast milk?
If it were up to her, she says, she would have concurred with her son’s paediatrician’s recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of her son’s life.
“My workplace does not have any private area apart from the washrooms, which are not ideal for pumping as they are quite unhygienic,” Wanja, a Nairobi Accountant at a private sector audit firm says.
“Even if I do manage to pump at work, there is nowhere to store the milk as the office does not have such apparatus. The available fridge is publicly used and the management requests mothers to not store human milk there to avoid inconveniences,” she continues.
Going home during her lunch break to breastfeed her child was also an alternative, but that was impossible seeing that she lives an hour away from the CBD. Nairobi’s traffic, which is the worst in Africa and fifth in the world according to a new report, makes this alternative moot too.
There was also the option of getting’ flexi hours’ that would give her more time with her child, but her boss turned down the request saying the three months maternity leave the company had accorded her was too long in the first place.
At the end of the day, Wanja was unable to breastfeed her son exclusively, regardless of how much she wanted to.
The story of Wanja is not unique. Millions of working Kenyan mothers are forced to give up on exclusive breastfeeding when they resume work, owing to unfavourable conditions and policies in place.
I had the same fears as those Wanja faced when I resumed work after giving birth to my son.
Fortunately, the Human Resource department accorded me, alongside other new mothers, a private room that came along with our own storage refrigerator to store breast milk. So good was the arrangement, that I managed to successfully exclusively breastfeed my son for the first six months of his life. As a result, I can attest that my productivity at work is top notch as is my relationship with my son which did not suffer during those first months.
-The Importance of breast feeding exclusively for the first 6 months-
The World Health Organization (WHO) strongly advises mothers to give babies breast milk, only, during the first six months as it provides all the energy and nutrients an infant needs. Breast milk is also credited with boosting sensory and cognitive development while protecting the infant against infectious and chronic diseases.
Additionally, WHO says exclusive breast feeding reduces infant mortality from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea or pneumonia and helps for a quicker recovery during illness.
It also contributes to the health and well-being of mothers. According to WHO, it helps to space children, reduces the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer, increases family and national resources, is a secure way of feeding and is safe for the environment.
– New Law –
The Wanja’s of Kenya however stand to benefit if a bill seeking to compel employers to provide breastfeeding stations that include fridges and breast pumps for expressing milk is passed.
“The principal object of this Bill is to provide a legal framework for mothers who may wish to breastfeed their children in the workplace. The Bill provides for the right of a mother to breastfeed freely or express milk for her infant. The Bill further requires employers to provide breastfeeding employees with lactation rooms to either breastfeed or express their milk for their children,” Murang’a County Woman Representative Sabina Chege, who sponsored the bill, said when it came up for debate in Parliament.
Male MPs David Ochieng (Ugenya), James Nyikal (Seme) and Aghostino Netto (Ndhiwa) agreed that the effect of the landmark legislation is to allow working lactating mothers to bring up healthy babies by allowing them greater periods to breastfeed.
“Presently, female employees exit the workforce or stop breastfeeding in order to secure their job security. No woman should be forced to compromise the health of her child in order to make a living,” Sabina continues.
Employers are not the only ones who will be required to accommodate mothers should the Bill become law, public facilities such as restaurants will also be expected to have baby changing facilities, space for which real estate developers and those leasing spaces would need to factor in.
Jane Godia from the Africa Woman and Child Feature Service says that even if the Bill is passed into law, the real test will be its implementation. “Many organisations will worry about starting daycares because of the extra space and extra work force needed. Smaller companies many have to worry about creating rooms to accommodate breast feeding mothers who may need to express milk.”
The bill did not however receive the full support of some key legislators such as National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale, who said he is opposed to a provision in the proposed legislation.
In his contribution to the Bill that received support from most MPs, Duale said he was opposed to the provision in the Bill which requires public facilities with an occupancy of at least 30 persons be expected to have baby changing facilities which he described as overextending the magnanimity that had already been given to lactating mothers.
The Majority Leader argued this would add to the already brimming plate of real estate developers or those leasing space.
“If the bill is passed and the relevant parties comply, what our society will have is a more productive and efficient women workforce. If a mother is sure that her baby is well fed in the best way possible, feels her role as a mother is supported by her workplace and allowed enough time to bond with her baby, what you get is a settled woman who is able to do her job exemplary well,” Godia later defended.
The government unveiled a human resource policy last year, that gave public institutions three years to set up day-care facilities and provide breastfeeding employees with well-equipped lactating rooms.
To punish defiant companies, the bill proposes a one-year jail term or a Sh500,000 fine, which MP Mary Wambui argued was not punitive enough.
Currently, only a handful of companies have facilities that support breastfeeding mothers such as Safaricom and Kenya Commercial Bank. Godia says there is no government office known to have such facilities.
In 2013, nominated MP Sarah Korere hit the headlines after she broke the norm by breastfeeding her six-month-old daughter within Parliament.
Korere would carry her daughter to work and breastfeed her in between parliamentary proceedings to keep up with her daughter’s demands.
Asked why she chose to do so, Korere said, “My daughter has to get what she is entitled to, which is six months of exclusive breast feeding. A child should suckle, and there was no way I was going to leave my daughter at home. I would be pleasing some people, but hurting her.”
Her move inspired the Parliamentary Service Commission – which looks into the welfare of Members of Parliament and staff members – to set up a private room with necessary apparatus to support breast feeding mothers.
Hope for Wanja and new mothers now rests with the next crop of Parliamentarians given the current ones officially ‘closed’ for the August 8 General Election before conclusively deciding the matter.