Breastfeeding: Working mothers called for policy change to secure children’s future

Breastfeeding: Working mothers called for policy change to secure children’s future

UNICEF Timor-Leste
UNICEF cafe on breastfeeding hero
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/ahelin
15 October 2018

“When I was pregnant I thought breastfeeding would be easy, but it wasn’t,” 30-year-old mother Guilhermina de Araújo told the crowd gathered in Dili’s historic Resistance Museum on a quiet Tuesday morning for the second UNICEF Café conversation. 

“When I delivered, I had no breastmilk. The doctor asked me to try for the baby, but for three days I still didn’t have breastmilk. I gave him formula, and then he became sick, vomiting, jaundiced, inflamed stomach, and I was scared, so I called a midwife friend who asked me what I gave him. I said formula, and she told me to take him to the hospital.”

Guilhermina’s experience isn’t unusual. Data from the recently published 2016 Demographic Health Survey (DHS) shows just one in two mothers in Timor-Leste are exclusively breastfeeding their children for the recommended first six months of life, down from 52 per cent reported in the 2010 DHS. Worryingly, the decline was most notable in better-off, educated women living in urban areas, where poverty rates are lower.

unicef cafe discussion
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/ahelin
Working Mothers and Breastfeeding- the UNICEF Café spot lights on the enabling environment for the working mothers

In response, UNICEF Timor-Leste today hosted the second in its series of UNICEF Café events, calling together a panel of women from across the private and public sectors to share experiences over coffee of breastfeeding and work. 

In her remarks opening the event, the acting UNICEF Timor-Leste Representative Toshiko Takahasi raised concerns about the declining rate of exclusive breastfeeding, which needs urgent attention. 

“Breastfeeding protects children from illness and acts as a vaccination,” she told the crowd. “Through breastfeeding, mothers, babies and parents develop a connection and bond. It affects a healthy community’s social and psychological development and is fundamental in the fight for survival and development of children around the globe. It is important to establish a supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers and babies through our collective action and effort.”


Urgent action required for children’s health and survival 

“Women have a right to 60 days of maternity leave, with 40 days obligatory,” said Maria de Jesus Sarmento. “But we see it’s not sufficient. But when they return to work after maternity leave, they also have one hour per day to breastfeed their child.”

unicef cafe on breastfeeding2
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/ahelin
Maria de Jesus Sarmento, Executive Secretary of the Civil Service Commission of Timor-Leste called to reinforce existing legislation both in private and public sectors

While women working in the government sector are entitled to three months of maternity leave, no similar rules exist for women working in the private sector, like Guilhermina, who runs a film company with her husband and who went back to work three months after their son was born last year.

Happily, after encouragement from her midwife friend, Guilhermina was able to breastfeed successfully, and still breastfeeds the now 13-month-old while working.

“When I work it also impacts my milk for the baby,” she said. “It’s difficult for me because I must take care of the baby and work, too, but he motivates me. I encourage myself, I say to myself, ‘who do you work for?’, and it’s not for other people, it’s for my child. I must know that I need to give him milk for his health and his future.”

Sharing experiences to encourage others

Alzira, smiling and pregnant, shared her experience of the creche at Alola Foundation, a local NGO, which offers the opportunity for breastfeeding mothers to continue work without having to return home frequently to feed. 

Breastfeeding cafe ok ok
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/ahelin

“We know that being breastfed is a fundamental right,” she told the crowd.  “At Alola, we practise what we introduce.” She said the objectives of the crèche are to both promote exclusive breastfeeding and to support women’s access to work. 

“As a women’s organisation we want to strengthen women to access work. Many women don’t continue work, or give formula to their babies, because they don’t have support or space from their organisation. We need to continue to breastfeed after three months [when maternity leave ends].”

Dinorah said that while her workplaces haven’t had the facilities Alola Foundation has, it hasn’t stopped her from breastfeeding. “I never gave my children formula in their first six months,” she told the crowd. “Even when I worked – we didn’t have a space like Alola does but I made my own space. I had to enter work again because I had a responsibility. But I took my child, I could take care of him.” 

Dinorah recalled being invited to an overseas meeting when her baby was just six months old. “I said, you must also pay for him or I can’t participate, I need to breastfeed him,” she told the crowd. The organisers agreed, and she was able to attend the meeting. 

In an open discussion, following presentations from mothers, the audience called for change. Samuel Soares from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for a review of existing laws and for changes to support working women to be made. The Alola Foundation creche resonated with Luis Evaristo Soares, the Director of CRC, who called on government and the private sector to introduce similar crèche to support women in the workforce.


Mother’s milk best for healthy children

Infant formula is becoming increasingly popular in Timor-Leste and neighbouring Indonesia, where it is marketed as innovative new science, and can help women needing to continue working to support their family and retain their jobs. Doctor Milena dos Santos reminded the audience that breastmilk remains the healthiest, safest choice for families. 

“We know formula isn’t the same as mothers’ milk,” she said. “[Mothers’ milk] provides vitamins and antibodies that makes babies stronger and enables them to counter illness. It’s also easier to digest, easy for the stomach to absorb. Formula isn’t easy to digest, and it has a lot of sugar, which can destroy the brain.”

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UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/ahelin
Male counterparts also participated in the discussion session and called for changing policy and rules to support working women and their children

UNICEF Timor-Leste showed two short videos during the event, encouraging mothers to continue breastfeeding using animated animals demonstrating the natural connection between mother and child. 

“When I saw that film, I really felt that,” said Guilhermina, with a laugh. “I want to give my child breastmilk until he wants to stop.”

She says her husband plays a key role supporting her breastfeeding. He often wakes at 4 am to buy her the corn, soybeans, peanuts and mung beans she says makes her milk flow well, highlighting the fact that an enabling environment for breastfeeding won’t just come from mothers alone. 

And change is coming.  Lucia Taeki, the member of Parliament highlighted the role of parliament to promoting breastfeeding rights, and said the women’s parliamentarian group has presented a strategy to achieve this.  And while it may be difficult for working women to juggle the need to exclusively breastfeed with workplaces and policies that don’t always support this, sharing experiences and raising awareness is one important first step for progress.