Is a campaign for half working days post-maternity leave asking for too much? ANJELLAH OWINO talked to the two women behind the cause.
After four hours of sleep, Martha Mugi wakes up at 3.30am to prepare herself for work and to breastfeed her baby. She leaves at 6am to avoid the intense traffic on Nairobi’s Lang’ata Road and arrives at work one hour early. She leaves work at 5pm and gets home at 8pm, exhausted. She tries to nurse her son but her breasts have little milk.
Martha’s son is nearly seven months old. She started supplementing his feeds with formula when he was only two months old because she could not keep up with the demands of breastfeeding and expressing breast milk when she went back to work. She had taken a four-month bed rest before childbirth, explaining the early report to work.
“Breastfeeding is an integration of a woman’s body and mind, this is the experience of every mother out there. The hassles of work could not keep my body relaxed. I ate a lot of food; chocolates, fruits, porridge and juices to help me produce milk but I still could not,” says Martha adding that she ended up gaining more than ten kilos.
Although Martha is grateful for the six months total of leave her employer gave her during her pregnancy and post-partum months, she says the pressure of a full-time career is a contributing factor to why many children are not exclusively breastfed.
“I had the zeal and the will to exclusively breastfeed my second born child because I was not able to do so for my first child. But I did not have enough milk when I went home to breastfeed him,” Martha says, pointing out that supplementing the breast milk with formula was expensive.
When Martha shared her struggles with her colleague, Karen Kendi, they discovered they had a common problem and got the idea to start a campaign to address the issue. They hope the campaign will translate into a bill and ultimately a law that allows a mother to work half day for three months once she is back from her maternity leave. The two mothers are furthering their cause through a campaign, ‘Career Mothers for Exclusive Breastfeeding’, which is primarily on social media.
Martha and Karen, who work for an aviation company at Wilson Airport, say that if their campaign is successful, mothers will have the choice of spending more time with their babies, making it easier for them to meet the demands of practising exclusive breastfeeding for six months as recommended by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation.
Not so long ago, women working in Kenya had a fully paid maternity leave of two months before it was adjusted to three months, and a two-week paternity leave. In 2007, Parliament enacted new labour laws. In the provision, an employee became entitled to three months’ (90 consecutive working days) maternity leave or a 14-day paternity leave. It was a relief for many women. However, with the exclusive breastfeeding recommendation, there was still room for improvement.
Considering that the conditions are less favourable in some countries, Karen and Martha initially questioned how ambitious their campaign was. The US, one the most developed nation in the world, gives its female workers an unpaid maternity leave of 12 weeks. It is only a few days ago that a policy was passed to allow women working in the Navy a leave of 18 weeks and men a paternity leave of ten days.
The deal is sweeter for their neighbours in Canada. New mothers are given a maternity leave of 17 weeks, and an addition of 35 weeks can be taken by either parent, summing up to 52 weeks and they are assured of job security.
Many European countries are also generous with maternity leave. Croatia, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina offer a one year maternity leave besides a differed per cent of salary package.
Denmark, Serbia and United Kingdom give 52 weeks (one year) and a full salary for the former two while UK cuts off ten`*- per cent.
In China, women take a maternity leave of 98 days, starting 15 days to giving birth, and the leave may be extended by 15 days under special circumstances. A woman who is 24 years or older is accorded an extra leave of 30 days because her case will be taken as ‘late childbirth.’
The Career Mothers for Exclusive Breastfeeding campaign is in its early stages but the two mothers say they are hoping to garner the support of as many working mothers as possible and that of Supreme Court Judge Njoki Ndung’u, Nairobi Women Representative Rachel Shebesh, Mbita MP Millie Mabona and Runyenjes MP Cecily Mbarire among others.
“Justice Ndung’u is a mother and I think she can identify with this. She also fought for the six months leave but it was not approved and that is even why we are asking for a half a day in the extra three months and hopefully, these women will come on board,” Karen says. “We also want to identify ourselves with World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action and other groups with the same vision.”
The two women have thought of the possibility that the success of the campaign could result in the sacking of or discrimination against women of childbearing age, but they hope there will be adjustments among employers countrywide when they cross that bridge.
“This is not about women at all but the idea of bringing up healthy children,” Martha says.
“My child had infections and other health complications because he was not breastfed exclusively. There are so many diseases that can be prevented through breastfeeding. We are only asking for a six months attention to the child. We are here to raise a generation,” asserts Martha.
Karen is equally optimistic: “I feel that it is a big mountain we are about to climb. We want to push for this campaign and as well teach women, even stay-at-home mothers, the importance of six months exclusive breastfeeding,” she says.
But experts say the campaign should take certain factors into consideration. Human Resource expert Eileen Laskar, says that if this becomes law, women should be allowed the free will to choose whether to apply for the extra leave. She predicts that a number of women might not be interested in it.
“I understand the problem new mothers face but I think we are in a very competitive era. Just passing the bill might not necessarily mean that women will go home to breastfeed. If passed, there are those people who will take advantage of it and those who will choose not to because we live in a world where women are career driven.
“There are those mothers who can meet the demands of exclusive breastfeeding while working full day and those who cannot,” she says.
George Bob Oira, a labour lawyer and author of a book, ‘Labour Laws’ proposes that new mothers take advantage of the sick and annual leaves already provided for by the Constitution or a time off period for breastfeeding as permitted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
“Kenya is now part of the ILO and it allows new mothers to negotiate with their employers for a time off period to go and breastfeed,” he says.
He points out that the Kenyan law allows for an employee to extend her leave as sick leave or annual leave within the consent of the employer. Women, he says, can choose to ask their unions to fight for these leaves.
“They can go to the doctor too and have the doctor recommend bed rest if it has been proved that fatigue is the reason why they cannot produce milk. I am looking for simple scenarios, saying that they are tired and therefore pushing for a law is going far too much a mile,” George observes.
The annual World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) that takes place between August 1 until 7, pushes to educate mothers on the importance of breast milk in the first six months of the birth of a child. This year, the WBW theme focuses on working women and the need of support towards new mothers. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (Waba) is a coordinator for WBW and top of its goal is provision of support to mothers to enable them couple work and breastfeeding in places of work or at home.
Just last year, nominated MP Sarah Korere, the first woman to breastfeed her baby in Parliament, faced backlash from people who held the opinion that babies should not be in Parliament, leave alone be breastfed in the premise. But that did not change the MP’s mind. She was determined to see to it that she accorded her child six months of exclusive breastfeeding.
This reflects the fact that more and more women have recognised the importance of breastfeeding. And although this has improved in recent times, a lot still needs to be done according to the Ministry of Health.
“Out of approximately 1.5 million children born each year in Kenya, only 500,000 of them are exclusively breastfed. This means that more than one million babies are exposed to the unnecessary risk of malnutrition and increased illness, which impact negatively on the country’s road to achieving MDG 4 –that of reducing child mortality,” said Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia last year.