Lyka Mtambo Milanzi is a practicing lawyer based in Lilongwe and is a mother of two children.
She says when she was on maternity leave for her children it was only for three months with payment.
Due to this, she only managed to breastfeed exclusively for the three months and she stopped breastfeeding exclusively in the fourth month as she had to return to work.
Yet, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef recommend that a baby should be breastfed for two years.
They say that the first six months of a children’s life should be dedicated to exclusive breastfeeding and that weaning should start at six months to complement breast milk.
According to the two organisations, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months protects the child from gastrointestinal infections.
Breast milk is a source of nutrients and energy for a child between 6-24 months.
Breastfeeding also reduces the risks of breast and ovarian cancer to women.
Be as the benefits may, many working mothers fail to breastfeed correctly as recommended by the two organisations. In fact a baby starts to be weaned with breast milk substitutes such as formula by three months as an alternative to breast milk due to a mother’s short maternity leave from her job.
According to Section 47 of Malawi’s Employment Act of 2000, a female employee shall be entitled to at least eight weeks, within every three years fully paid maternity leave.
The leave shall enjoy normal benefits and entitlements including contractual rights and accumulation of seniority, shall continue uninterrupted and that the period of employment shall not be considered to have been interrupted, reduced or broken.
This year’s World Breastfeeding Week theme was ‘Breastfeeding and Work: Let’s Make It Work’.
The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action in conjunction with WHO and Unicef are advocating for the extension of paid maternity leave to six months in order to allow mothers to exclusively breastfeed during that period.
They call upon all stakeholders to support women for them to breastfeed on the job by making the working environment conducive for breastfeeding.
This, they say, can be done by opening child facilities within the workplace or transportation should be provided to mothers so that they can go and nurse their babies.
Flexing the working conditions of breastfeeding women is one way of ensuring that children get the best care while working mothers continue to earn a living to support their families.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world that has a very high employment rate. So, does Malawi have the capacity to revise and implement section 47 of the Employment Act from eight weeks to six months paid maternity leave?
Would this not victimise younger women in getting employment?
Would employers be willing to implement and support these recommendations?
Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Labour Patrick Kabambe says currently there is no proposal for the amendment of section 47 of the Employment’s Act from eight weeks to six months maternity paid leave.
“If the people of Malawi want appropriate laws for maternity paid leave then it is possible. Laws can be changed to suit the needs of the people but this would require all stakeholders sitting down and discussing how best to go about it so that (young) women seeking employment are not discriminated against out of fear of having to pay them for six months maternity leave.
“At the end of the day what we want is a proactive and productive society,” he says.
Executive Director for Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (Ecam) Beyani Munthali is of the view that the matter can be handled at employer and employee contractual level.
“If implemented very well there are some benefits such as time saving. For instance, if there is a day care facility within an organisation or close by a mother wouldn’t have to drive home to breastfeed her child.
“Of course, there are some industries that require full time presence and this may not work. Overall, this requires all stakeholders working together to make it possible,” he says.
Milanzi, concurring with Kabambe, says if the proposal was to be implemented it would affect the employment rate of young women in profit-oriented organisations.
She however suggests that the government can intervene by introducing incentives such as tax reduction to encourage organisations to implement it.
Munthali however says there is no need to revise the national laws but rather employers can change their laws.
“Pregnant and breastfeeding women would not face discrimination because section 47 of Employment’s act already protects them. Malawi is at a stage where it recognises the benefits of employing both men and women,” he says.