It’s Breastfeeding Awareness Month this August.
The United Nations represented by the International Labor Organization (ILO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) are calling for a stronger support base in the Philippines to enable women to combine breastfeeding and work.
This year’s theme Tama, Sapat at Ekslusibo ang Pagpapasuso kahit nasa Trabaho calls for support to working mothers to exclusively breastfeed their babies. The theme highlights the importance of providing workplace support to mothers to continue breastfeeding even when they return to work.
“In the Philippines, almost 40% of the labor force are female. Working mothers spend majority of their child’s first 1,000 days (conception to age 2) at work. We have the urgent responsibility to ensure working mothers have an enabling environment to give their children the best start in life through proper care and breastfeeding, whether at home or in the workplace,” said UNICEF Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander.
UNICEF and WHO recommend exclusive breastfeeding for babies for the first six months after birth – which means no solids or other liquids are given to the baby, not even water. After six months, appropriate and adequate complementary feeding should be introduced while continuing to breastfeed up to two years or beyond.
However, data shows only one out of three Filipino children are breastfed as recommended. Going back to work is a common reason why mothers stop breastfeeding. “This is alarming, given that exclusive breastfeeding has the single largest potential impact on preventing child mortality and helping in healthy physical and mental growth,” Ms. Sylwander added.
“Breastfeeding is the most nutritious way of feeding a baby. Breast milk is readily available, inexpensive, clean and safe. It provides all the nutrients a baby requires and is the only food that a baby needs from birth to 6 months. Breastfeeding should be continued up to at least 2 years of age, complemented after the age of 6 months with appropriate young child food. Working mothers are strongly encouraged – and should be supported – to continue breastfeeding their children, even in the work place, to ensure their child’s optimum health and development,” according to Dr Julie Lyn Hall, WHO Representative in the Philippines.
The many benefits of exclusive breastfeeding to a baby, especially in the first six months are irreplaceable. Positive effects for working women, even to employers and the workplace itself are equally rewarding.
“Experiences at the firm level show that those who support exclusive breastfeeding in the workplace have benefited from higher staff continuity and loyalty; lower parental absence; increased level of productivity; higher morale and job satisfaction; improved retention of employees; reduced training budget due to loss of qualified staff; lower healthcare costs; and a more family-friendly image and positive environment,” said Lawrence Jeff Johnson, Director of the ILO Country Office for the Philippines.
Philippines laws and policies on breastfeeding and maternity
Promoting breastfeeding policies in the workplace is crucial in line with national laws. Republic Act (RA) 10028 or the Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009 provides national policy to support breastfeeding in the workplace. It mandates that breastfeeding mothers be provided with lactation space, lactation breaks and access to breastfeeding information at work. It also requires every workplace to have a lactation policy and comply with the provisions of Executive Order 51 (Philippine Milk Code of 1986).
Through RA 10028, a policy environment supporting working mothers in breastfeeding is already in place. Critical now are resources and partnerships to implement and monitor compliance to the law.
The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) recently issued guidelines stipulating clear conditions and requirements for private establishment in applying for exemption from setting up workplace lactation stations. An organization may only be exempted if it has no pregnant, nursing, lactating employee or clients who visit or transact with it. DOLE has also incorporated monitoring of lactation stations in the Labor Law Compliance System which aims to monitor compliance of establishments to labor standards. These DOLE initiatives are beneficial to female work force in private establishments.
On the other hand, attention must also be given on how the benefits of RA 10028 can effectively reach women workers in government offices and establishments and those in vulnerable employment which include women in informal, seasonal and part-time work. Mechanisms for the effective implementation of RA 10028 in the public sector is critical as the government employs the most number of workers.
According to the ILO, women in vulnerable employment often face greater challenges in balancing work and their responsibilities at home.
“They are forced to accept or create whatever work is available just to survive. They receive minimal protection, work for long hours even in poor working conditions. Lack of safety nets and social protection compel them to give up breastfeeding for fear of losing their only source of income,” said Johnson, Director ILO.
The Philippines is also one of the countries with the shortest maternity leave provision, making workplace support critical to ensure that mothers can continue breastfeeding when they return to work. The ILO Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183), which the Philippines has not ratified, recommends the provision of a minimum of 14 weeks of maternity leave and identifies breastfeeding arrangement at work as an important element of maternity protection.
The ILO, UNICEF and WHO call stakeholders from the government, the business and labour sectors and civil society organizations to strengthen and support the implementation of RA 10028 so that working women can effectively combine work and breastfeeding.
Much remains to be done to improve the support for breastfeeding mothers in the Philippines. Strong legislation and policies with proper implementation have a crucial role in establishing frameworks for action and remove system bottlenecks. It also involves changing behavior and social norm in making breastfeeding a priority.
The United Nations in the Philippines will continue to prioritize and support the Government of the Philippines and families to adopt exclusive breastfeeding practices.