This week is international breastfeeding week.
According to the 2015 Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS), Malawi is experiencing declining exclusive breastfeeding rates in the first six months of infants’ lives. Studies have provided various explanations for this situation.
In Malawi, women’s participation in formal employment is generally low, accounting for 6.4 percent, according to the 2013 Malawi Labour Force Survey.
However, there has been an increase in number of women in paid non-agricultural employment. This could suggest the need for family-friendly employment policies and working conditions considering career women’s reproductive responsibilities.
According to the Employment Act, all female employees are entitled to at least eight weeks of full-pay maternity leave within three years.
Some organisations provide up to 12 weeks of maternity leave, but the duration is inadequate, especially in the private sector where women hardly finish work at 4:30 pm and are required to be at the workplace to do their job.
Leaving an infant aged eight to 12 weeks is difficult for women. This makes it difficult for employed women to continue with exclusive breastfeeding, thereby contributing to the declining figures.
The MDHS indicates exclusive breastfeeding rates have dipped from 71 percent in 2010 to 61 percent in 2015.
The absence of breastfeeding regulations in workplaces may also be contributing to this reduction.
Where they exist, organisations either provide rooms mothers can use to breastfeed or allow them to go home during the day. This enables women returning to work following maternity leave to continue breastfeeding for the recommended six months.
Yet, the absence of these incentives may also be contributing to the feeling that maternity leave is inadequate.
In a country where mothers are advised to strictly breastfeed babies for at least six months, maternity leave of less than six months and lack of breastfeeding regulations make the World Health Organisation and Unicef recommendation unattainable.
Yet exclusive breastfeeding is important for child survival and prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Since breast milk is easy to digest, it does not damage the baby’s intestines, barring HIV transmission.
Exclusive breastfeeding of infants aged below six months in low-income countries, including Malawi, also promotes healthy growth and reduces deaths.
Additionally, bottle-feeding such infants is discouraged to prevent possibility of contamination, which may cause diarrhoea.
Only those with a private transport or who live close to work can quickly go home and breastfeed during lunch break.
Failure to breastfeed exclusively has been attributed to women’s choices not to look old fashioned.
However, this is incorrect as many mothers, who want to spend more time with their infants and continue breastfeeding as long as possible, are prevented by short maternity leave, long working hours, lack of breastfeeding facilities in their workplaces and challenges in bringing a child to work for breastfeeding even if breastfeeding facilities and breaks were available.
A proper regulatory and policy framework is, therefore, needed to help women breastfeed longer.
Firstly, there is a need for revision of maternity leave provision to not less than six months to give women a chance to exclusively breastfeed longer.
The government, employers and employee representatives have to work together to see reduce the cost on productivity.
There is also need for the introduction of workplace policies that support breastfeeding.
Consequently, organisations that respond to breastfeeding needs of mothers will have satisfied female employees and the nation will have healthy children, thereby reducing costs of taking care of sick children due to failure to exclusively breastfeed longer.
In line with the theme of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, please “support breastfeeding for a healthier planet”.