Beyond the Celebrations: Walking the talk on supporting lactating mothers

Delegates pose for a group photo after the launch of World Breastfeeding Week at the Sarova Panafric Hotel in Nairobi on August 4, 2023. Balancing breastfeeding and professional commitments has always been challenging for most women, with poor structure exacerbating the situation. PHOTO/Courtesy.
  • Commemorating breastfeeding week is a commendable initiative that sheds light on the importance of breastfeeding for infants and maternal health.
  • The event had a specific call to each and every individual to help create conducive conditions for lactating mothers, be it a school-going, full-time stay home, or working class.
  • Managers and colleagues should be educated on the challenges faced by lactating mothers and encouraged to provide equal opportunities and support.

Breastfeeding is a natural and vital aspect of infant and maternal health, and it deserves ongoing attention and support.

As the world commemorates breastfeeding week, it is important to delve beyond mere celebrations and explore practical ways to empower lactating mothers in both formal and informal sectors.

As Pamela Wiggins put it, “Breastfeeding is a mother’s gift to herself, her child, and the earth”

Most women in the informal sector face a lot of backlash when it comes to maternity privileges and are surrounded by harsh working environments, unlike their counterparts in the formal sector.

Many get laid off once they break for maternity as informal sectors fear making losses and are often unsustainable.

There are a lot of laws to safeguard working lactating mothers, with major organizations taking the lead role in implementation.

However, for the informal sectors, the ball lies in the employer’s court. 

The Ministry of Health, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), together with different stakeholders, came together to witness the launch of World Breastfeeding Week at the Sarova Panafric Hotel in Nairobi on August 4, 2023.

Delegates follow proceedings during the occasion. PHOTO/UNICEF.

Unlike other celebrations, the event had a specific call to each and every individual, since we all come from a woman, to help create conducive conditions for lactating mothers, be it a school-going, full-time stay home, or working class.

The third principle of the child rights business, providing a decent work environment for young workers and caregivers, is more of what informal sector women have when it comes to law and governance.

“We need family-friendly policies that support maternal and child health and also foster national progress.

The advantages of breastfeeding cannot be overstated,” Shaheen Nilofer, UNICEF Kenya Representative, noted in her speech because every mother matters.

Shaheen Nilofer, UNICEF Representative to Kenya, delivering her remarks. PHOTO/Courtsy.

From a skit performance, the community health staff from Korogocho in Nairobi displayed to the audience what it means to be a new mother and work in low-income neighborhoods where you have to look for work every single day.

Most of these mothers live on offering services, some doing laundry, cleaning, selling groceries, and selling fast foods at construction sites, among others at the same time just but a mother.

A moment of entertainment. PHOTO/Courtesy.

“Breast milk each day keeps the doctor away; my first-born child had a lot of problems and was often in clinic because I introduced him to solid foods on the third month to keep my business running.

It was a lesson I learned to never repeat on my second baby,” Jane Achieng Aluto, a case study from the informal settlement opened up to the audience.

Besides the harsh working environment, cultural practices affect many breastfeeding women in semi-urban and rural settlements.

“Breast is not a sex organ but food for the baby; it’s food on heels if you may call it,” Martha Nyagaya, Chair of SUN Civil Society Organization, criticized negative cultural beliefs that stereotype women and cause shame when it comes to breastfeeding a child in public spaces.

HR and better policies

Human resources departments are vital in fostering a supportive work environment for breastfeeding mothers in formal sectors.

Community health staff from Korogocho pose for a photo with kids after their skit. PHOTO/Courtesy.

By actively engaging HR in conversations about lactation support and accommodation, we can work towards creating policies prioritizing nursing employees’ needs.

HR’s involvement can include conducting surveys to understand the challenges faced by lactating mothers, implementing lactation rooms and spaces, and providing flexible working arrangements to accommodate breastfeeding schedules.

By involving HR, we can initiate a cultural shift within organizations that values the well-being and rights of lactating mothers.

Kenya’s private sector alliance working together with UNICEF, has tried to meet the standards of WHO and business practices for children and their effort to improve the conditions of lactating mothers at workplaces.

Julie Gichuru, a media personality, narrated how she found it difficult to fit in after she had delivered and had to fight the system to ensure her children were breastfed and well-settled.

“My managers didn’t want me to breastfeed my child and come back to do the evening bulletin. I had to threaten to leave,” she confirmed about the struggles of a working lactating mother.

“Kindness and empathy go a long way,” Irene Kendi, Program Coordinator in charge of Education, Youth and Gender of the Central Organization of Trade Union, remarked after sharing her experience working in the informal sector, attending classes as a student and nursing a baby.

To counter this, formal sector organizations must promote a culture of inclusivity and encourage anti-discrimination policies.

Managers and colleagues should be educated on the challenges faced by lactating mothers and encouraged to provide equal opportunities and support.

Implementing clear guidelines and policies to address discrimination can ensure fair treatment of lactating mothers in the workplace.

“Whenever a lactating mother fails to express the milk often, it will soon dry up; you don’t need to set up a building, but just a space,” Leila Odhiambo, the event’s moderator, said.

Leila Odhiambo moderating the event. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Mentoring first-time mothers

Jane Mutisya, HR Projects Director at Career management center, says that mentorship works in everything. Returning to work after maternity can be overwhelming for first-time mothers, especially for those who are still breastfeeding.

Establishing mentorship programs can provide guidance and support during this transition.

In her database, Ms. Mutisya mentioned she has over a thousand women who left work and are now trying to bounce back because the work environment could not allow them to balance the two, and now they are trying to couch and offer help to them.

Seasoned mothers who have successfully navigated their way through work and breastfeeding can act as mentors, offering advice, sharing experiences, and providing emotional support.

Post-mortem depression, caused by lack of support, has become a norm for several working first-time mothers.

From getting help in preparing nutritious foods to facilitate the flow of breastmilk, to a hand in house chores to allow for enough time to breastfeed the baby and also the mother to feed, there are a number of ways we can come through for first-time mothers.

Such programs can relieve anxieties and help new mothers balance their personal and professional responsibilities more effectively.

Mentorship not only ensures that first-time mothers have a support network but also facilitates the exchange of knowledge and helps create a supportive workplace environment.

While celebrating breastfeeding week brings attention to the topic, sustaining support behind the seven days is vital.

This can be achieved by implementing comprehensive lactation support programs that lactation extends beyond designated celebrations.

Employers should invest in educating their workforce about the benefits of breastfeeding, providing lactation consultants or counselors, and establishing ongoing resources and networks to assist lactating mothers.

A culture of empathy

Additionally, fostering a culture of empathy and understanding where colleagues actively support and encourage breastfeeding mothers can have a lasting impact.

Encouraging open dialogues, providing flexibility in work schedules and offering practical resources such as pumping facilities in both formal and informal sectors can enhance the overall support system for lactating mothers in different workplaces.

Commemorating breastfeeding week is a commendable initiative that sheds light on the importance of breastfeeding for infants and maternal health.

However, the conversation should not end in the celebrations alone.

By involving human rights in fostering an enabling work environment, addressing discrimination, providing mentorship to first-time mothers, and sustaining support beyond designated celebrations, we can create a society that truly walks the talk regarding supporting lactating mothers.

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Let us collectively work towards normalizing breastfeeding and ensuring that every lactating mother feels supported, valued, and empowered in both their personal and professional lives.

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Ms. Loise is a Communication Specialist with a bachelor's degree in Publishing and Media Science from Moi University, Kenya. She is a dedicated web developer and a climate change and environment writer. She also owns diverse skills in social media marketing. Her contact: loiselenser@gmail.com

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