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Maternity Protection

Exclusive breastfeeding for six months is crucial for the health of mothers and infants everywhere, not just among those who do not have access to clean water and can't afford artificial breastmilk substitutes. But we also know that everywhere women are entering the work force in greater numbers and need special support to be able to breast feed exclusively.

Much of women's work is informal, poorly paid, or unpaid, unrecognized, and unprotected by labour legislation. Women usually take responsibility for unpaid household work and the nurturing work of child rearing. Thus, work includes income-generating activities in the recognized labour market and in the informal sector, as well as unpaid, unrecognized household and volunteer work. Only women have the capacity to breastfeed. But the integration of breastfeeding with other kinds of work requires new policies and actions to protect the rights of women, including the right to breastfeed.

This is particularly important today, as women workers face ever worsening conditions of work. Given the current process of economic globalization, conditions of paid work are becoming more uncertain and precarious. As a result many women are working more for less. Breastfeeding is a right of mothers and is a fundamental component in assuring a child's right to food, health and care. Governments and civil society should pursue full implementation of these as human rights.

The protection, respect and fulfillment of these rights requires universal recognition of the importance of maternity as a social function supported by public funds. "Maternity protection is a precondition of genuine equality of opportunity and treatment for men and women." (International Labour Organization [ILO], Maternity Protection at Work, pg. 51, 1997)

Read the following Country Situation files to access basic information on nearly every country in the world on breastfeeding rates, working women and maternity protection benefits, with sources listed.