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Hon Zuleikha Hassan made history and international headlines by being the first parent to take her daughter to work in the chamber of the Kenyan National Assembly. The incident momentarily interrupted another important debate on Kenya-Somalia maritime border dispute. It also provided the country with an opportunity to reflect again on why some of our workplaces are still out of bounds for our infants.

Citing standing orders, presiding Speaker Chris Omulele ordered her out of the chamber for bringing a stranger. Before she left with a number of male and female MPs supporting her, other MPs had threatened her with gross misconduct and disrespecting the dignity of the august House. Social and mass media exploded with opinions in favour and against her action. Zuleikha and her infant had succeeded in bringing international breastfeeding week onto the floor of our Parliament.

Zuleikha’s action breathes life again into Laurel Ulrich’s wonderful saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” It is not the first time that a woman parliamentarian has demanded a family-friendly working environment. In 2017, Australian Senator Larissa Waters moved a motion while breastfeeding her daughter Alia Joy. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who still believes in humanity and human rights, caused a stir a year ago, when she showed up at the United General Assembly Nelson Mandela Summit with her baby.

Safe and warm

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Like all workplaces with more than 30 employees, our National Assembly is legally required to have a lactation room. The Health Act obligates all employers to provide a lactation room that is private, hygienic, safe and warm. It must have a wash basin, fridge for storing expressed milk, electricity and a chair. Failure to do this, risks the employer a fine not exceeding Sh500,000 or a jail term of one year. The Zuleikha incident spotlights not just our parliamentary facilities but all our workplaces, educational and health facilities.

The benefits of breast-feeding are well-known. They include the absorption of vitamins, proteins, antibodies and fewer illnesses leading to higher IQ scores and better health. Mothers shed pregnancy weight faster and avoid the chances of breast and ovarian cancer. Mother and baby bond closer through breastfeeding.

Kenya happens to be a world leader on this issue. We are one of 39 countries that have adopted rights-based legislation prohibiting inappropriate marketing of unsafe breast-milk substitutes like infant formula. The breast-milk substitute business is huge. It is estimated the global industry may be making as much as US$ 70 billion.

WHO has argued that every US$ 1 invested in breastfeeding yields US$ 35 in returns to the economy. A Kepsa study on 66 companies revealed that most employers have complied with the 90-day maternity leave provision and most workplaces now have lactating rooms by 2016.

Employers and employees there and elsewhere have seen the benefits more directly in higher levels of staff productivity, loyalty and retention. It is findings like these that have the Architectural Association of Kenya and Women in Real Estate currently designing standards for lactating rooms for workplaces.

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With all this, why is breast-feeding still so controversial across Kenya? All devout Christians and Muslims know the blessings of a lactating Virgin Mary and the Prophet Muhammad was breastfed by his mother and two different wet nurses. The Koran is explicit that breast-milk is the right of all children under Islamic law. Place this on top of African practices that once empowered mothers to openly breastfeed in the presence of both sexes and across generations and you have to ask what happened. Why does a little nudity and breast-feeding in the public still menace some of us?

Is it that we still believe workplaces are public spaces populated by men and our homes are private spaces populated by women? It is time we fully embraced the rights of nursing mothers to move freely through both spaces. They should not be forced to choose whether to stay home or go to work and serve the nation. Infants with their parents cannot really be strangers in either of Houses of Parliament or any workplace for that matter. Fathers, I dare you. Follow Zuleikha Hassan’s example and let’s really provoke a national discussion worth having.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter: @amnesty.or.ke

Zuleikha Hassan National Assembly Chris Omulele
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