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Short maternity leave: A hindrance to a child and mother’s right to breastfeed.

Women, especially those of child bearing age have increasingly embraced employment constituting about 42% of the working population in Uganda. Many women are pursuing employment hand in hand with their many maternal functions such as childbearing which subsequently comes with breastfeeding.

Much as employment has and continues to uplift the welfare and status of women in society, it has been recognized as a major barrier to working women fulfilling their maternal function of breastfeeding. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. Such exclusive breastfeeding has the potential of preventing infections in children and long term illnesses like diabetes, obesity and cancer. The Employment Act of 2006 is the major workers legislation in Uganda and under   Section 56 it gives working mothers only 60 working days (about 3 months) as maternity leave. This provision by implication limits mothers to breastfeed for only 3 months instead of WHO recommended 6 months. The provision further leaves uncertainty of how a working mother expected to resume work will continue exclusively breastfeeding her child.  Working mothers often feel the pressure of returning to work due to financial reasons and concern for their job security. This forces them to stop exclusively breastfeeding their children at a very tender age which leaves children at a risk of contracting infections, other related illnesses and to miss out on the health benefits of exclusive breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is a constitutional right’s issue as it is critical to the enjoyment of other human rights that protected in Uganda’s Constitution and other international instruments like; the right to life, right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health and the right to food. When a child is not optimally breastfed, they risk being malnourished which is a violation of their right to health and food or even contracted long term illnesses which can lead to death. As with all human rights the right of mothers and children to breast feed creates several legal obligations on not government but also the private workplaces. The government has the obligation to protect this right and ensure that all children born are optimally breastfed. When it comes to working mothers, government is obligated to fulfill the right by providing a supportive environment to ensure that breastfeeding continues in a supportive environment even after resuming work.

Unfortunately, research conducted by UNICEF suggests that only 43% of children born in Uganda are exclusively breastfed which fact explains the high rates of malnutrion with more than a third of the children in Uganda being stunted. Uganda grows at a rate of 3% per year which means that about 1000 of the children born every day face a risk of not being exclusively breastfed. This is a threat to the future of Uganda since breastfeeding is central to our country’s human capital development.

With the optimal breastfeeding recommendation being 6 months, government needs to provide a legal framework that provides a supportive environment for working breastfeeding mothers. This can be done through amending Section 56 of the Employment Act by extending the maternity leave period to 6 months or creating laws and policies for workplaces to provide a supportive and adequate environment for mothers to continue breastfeeding up to 6 months. Additionally, since breastfeeding is not a one woman’s job but to us all as a country, employers need to step up for breastfeeding and provide supportive work environments that enable working mothers to continue breastfeeding. This can be through allowing mothers to carry their babies to work, providing a clean well ventilated and private room for breastfeeding or pumping, paid breaks to breastfeed among others as the employer and working mother may agree.

In order for Uganda to achieve its desired goals in the NDP III among which include human capital development, the Government needs to invest in breastfeeding especially providing a legal framework that provides supportive work environments for working mothers to continue breastfeeding. In doing so, a health population will be secured and hence development of human capital in Uganda.

Authored by Tracy Nabbaale

Legal Officer, Social Justice and Strategic Litigation Program at CEFROHT.