Inadequate maternity leave a likely liability for breastfeeding
By Indra Nadchatram
KUALA LUMPUR, 25 August 2008 – Breastfeeding patterns in Malaysia suggest that inadequate maternity leave may in fact be denying babies their right to mother’s milk, and one of the reasons why only 1 in 7 infants were exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life in 2006.
According to Ministry of Health analysis of national breastfeeding data, exclusive breastfeeding rates in the country were high in the first two months but dropped rapidly after two or three months, roughly the period when maternity leave ends and working mothers return to paid employment.
In Malaysia, women are entitled to 8 weeks (60 days) paid maternity leave, 6 weeks short of the recommended 14 weeks by the International Labour Organisation’s Maternity Protection Convention 2000 (No. 183). Malaysia is not a signatory of the Convention.
Accelerated actions to support breastfeeding
Expressing concern over the country’s low levels of breastfeeding, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative to Malaysia, Mr. Youssouf Oomar stressed recently that accelerated actions are urgently needed to remove all obstacles that discourage working women from breastfeeding their infants.
“We must establish a culture of breastfeeding as the normal, natural and preferred method of feeding infants and young children and to provide specific measures to enable working mothers to continue breastfeeding,” said Mr. Youssouf at the launch of the Working Women and Breastfeeding Forum on 1 August.
“Adequate paid maternity leave is one such measure as it helps to reduce the barriers facing mothers to being both good nurturers and economic providers.”
Increasing paid maternity leave
A ‘Memorandum on Maternity Protection Supporting Working Women’ was presented to the National Family and Population Development Board (LPPKN) Chairman, Tan Sri Datin Paduka Seri Hajah Zaleha Ismail, and witnessed by some 80 breastfeeding champions representing Government departments, public and private hospitals, universities, NGOs, unions and media.
Amongst others, the Memorandum calls on the Government to provide working women with maternity leave of four months to facilitate exclusive breastfeeding.
“In the early months of life, infants must have ready access to breast milk to ensure survival and healthy development. At the same time, a mother needs up to at least 16 weeks after delivery to fully establish exclusive breastfeeding, gain confidence in her mothering skills and fully recover from the birth of her baby”, explained the Forum’s Chairman and Director of the Breastfeeding Information Bureau Puan Siti Norjinah Moin.
Protecting breastfeeding, a collective duty
The WHO/UNICEF Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding recommends that children breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life, and then continue breastfeeding with adequate complementary food up to two years or beyond.
In return, babies are healthier with lower risks of medical conditions such as respiratory and ear infections, diarrhea and obesity; while mothers benefit from reduced risk of ovarian cancer and premenopausal breast cancer. Healthier children and women profits everyone as it means less national expenditure on health care, fewer work absenteeism, improved employee loyalty and greater work productivity.
“It must be our collective responsibility to ensure every single one of Malaysia’s infants are breastfed according to WHO/UNICEF guidelines, as this will result in long-term and lasting economic, social and environmental gains for the country,” Mr. Youssouf highlighted.
“Appropriate maternity protection is the least we can do to protect the dignity of motherhood and acknowledge a woman’s unpaid work in getting our new citizens off to a good start in life”.
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