When Betty Kim (as she identifies herself on Facebook) walked into a City restaurant last week to have a meal, she would not have imagined that an experience she was about to encounter would spark national outrage.
After making her order, she decided to breastfeed her baby as she waited for her meal. No sooner had she started breastfeeding than a waiter approached her and told her to stop because it was “disgusting” to other patrons. Kim politely asked where, in the establishment, was appropriate to breastfeed and the waiter casually pointed to the toilet.
Despite the humiliation, Kim could not leave the restaurant because it was raining heavily. After the unfortunate incident, she posted her ordeal online, sparking outrage and the subsequent peaceful protest held in Nairobi on Tuesday morning to advocate for the rights of breastfeeding mothers.
Kim’s case is not isolated. Thousands of lactating women, especially working mothers, have to contend with an unconventional environment in their workplaces.
On reporting to work at the end of the three-months maternity leave, many of them are forced to express milk in unhygienic environments such as the toilets and cars. Worst still, storage facilities to keep the milk fresh are rare.
These experiences are not only dehumanising but also humiliating and discriminatory to working mothers. In some cases, women have suffered health complications such as mastitis, a potentially fatal infection of the mammary glands.
The Breastfeeding Mothers Bill 2017, which was passed by the National Assembly last year and is awaiting the President’s assent, among others, requires companies to provide nursing stations for lactating employees.
The bill states that every employer shall establish a lactation place that is conducive for mothers to express milk, store and preserve it in a clean and hygienic place.
Unfortunately, just a handful of companies in Kenya have complied with the bill. Notable trailblazers include Safaricom, Nestle-Kenya, Kenya National Human Rights Commission (KNCHR) and Kenya Women Foundation Trust (KWFT).
Companies with more than 30 women employees are required to establish nursing rooms for new mothers.
Employers who fail to comply with the requirements of the law face a fine not exceeding Sh500,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both.
Additionally, the bill states that a breastfeeding mothers may apply for a flexible work arrangement for the purposes of breastfeeding or expressing breast milk for the baby. The flexibility includes the number of working hours, nature and location of work for lactating mothers.
It cannot be lost to us that women now engage in occupations previously perceived as male dominated. That does not, however, deprive them their right to motherhood and to be granted special consideration during their lactating period.
While the World Health Organisation (WHO) encourages mothers to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months as one way of boosting the child’s immunity, in Kenya, working mothers are entitled to only three months maternity leave. This is where the flexi-hours apply.
Studies have shown that women who get support from their employers, especially when they come back from maternity leave, are more productive and deliver results. And when they are accommodated to continue performing their reproductive roles besides their productive ones, it is a win-win situation for both employer and employee.
An arrangement such as two months of half-day working hours and one month flexi-hours to complete the six months recommended breastfeeding term, would be a motivating factor for working women.
The nutritional benefits of exclusive breastfeeding cannot be gainsaid. According to the National Demographic and Health Survey, in 2015, 61 per cent of mothers of children aged less than six months were breastfeeding exclusively, a remarkable improvement from 37 per cent in 2012. This can be attributed to more flexible policies at workplaces and increased awareness on the benefits of breastfeeding.
And as we continue to advocate for safe public spaces for women to breastfeed, we must normalise the practice.
The government, civil rights groups and stakeholders alike need to ensure that if and when the bill on breastfeeding is signed, it is enforced.
—The writer is a senior sub-editor, People Daily.