The issue of women and work is about enabling women to successfully combine their reproductive and productive roles. It is a health issue, an economic issue, a labour issue, and a human rights issue. According to the United Nations Development Programme, women are responsible for 53% of the world’s total working hours, compared to 47% for men. While 75% of men’s work is paid, only about a third of women’s work is rewarded with cash. Since the definition of economic activity often excludes unpaid work such as subsistence agriculture, housework and child care etc., the actual figures for women at work are greater. Women spend more time than men doing unpaid care work and housework, with multiple and overlapping activities, such as childcare, cooking and cleaning.
Breastfeeding (the behaviour) and lactation (the physiological function of making milk) constitute a type of care work that is unique to women. A gender-equitable division of labour would recognise and accommodate the unique nature of the care work that lactating women do. In order for women to advance their enjoyment of all rights in general, it is essential that the contribution that women make to the economy, both in terms of paid and unpaid work in the home or elsewhere, is recognised, supported in multiple ways and compensated monetarily. Social reproduction cannot just be an individual responsibility of parents or a family. It is the collective responsibility of the state, employers and society.
Maternity benefits are basic human rights for women. For WABA and its partners, the concept of maternity protection is broader than just a few legal provisions, it includes various ways that the workload of childbearing women from all work sectors can be adjusted to accommodate childcare and breastfeeding. For instance, family and community members need to prioritise breastfeeding in relation to women’s domestic or community work. Employers need to consider the indirect benefits of breastfeeding – healthier children, less absenteeism, and happier mothers. WABA also stresses the need to support women in the non-formal sector since the great majority of these workers have no formal protection or support systems.
The Maternity Protection Coalition (MPC) comprises the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), the International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA), the LINKAGES Project and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), with technical assistance from International Maternal & Child Health, Uppsala University, Sweden (IMCH) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The MPC supports women’s rights to breastfeed and work, by advocating for implementation and monitoring of improved maternity protection entitlement
A campaign kit with a specific “breastfeeding” perspective, considering the health and nutrition angle was produced in 2003 by the MPC. It contains materials for campaigners who may lack specific information about breastfeeding as a maternity protection issue. It is also designed to prepare breastfeeding advocates to better understand the ILO Convention 183.
This World Breastfeeding Week, WABA calls for concerted global action to support women to combine breastfeeding and work. Whether a woman is working in the formal, non-formal or home setting, it is necessary that she is empowered in claiming her and her baby’s right to breastfeed. The WBW 2015 theme on working women and breastfeeding revisits the 1993 WBW campaign on the Mother-Friendly Workplace Initiative. Much has been achieved in 22 years of global action supporting women in combining breastfeeding and work, particularly the adoption of the revised ILO Convention 183 on Maternity Protection with much stronger maternity entitlements, and more country actions on improving national laws and practices.