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Mama, better maternity rights will mean better breastfeeding rates

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

After years trailing other world centres, Hong Kong is raising its maternity leave. In 2021, women will be able to receive 14 weeks paid leave, up from just 10 weeks.

Let's be clear, this is a step forward but not a victory in the battle for women's rights, employment rights, or maternal rights. The original figure was woefully low - with two weeks to be taken before the baby is born, this effectively left new mothers with eight weeks with their newborns before having to return to work.

To put this in perspective: In some countries is ILLEGAL to separate puppies from their mothers before eight weeks. Human offspring, arguably born more helpless, need a lot more time with mama for optimal development.

What's even more galling is that Hong Kong has been trying to raise breastfeeding rates without really acknowledging that it has precious few provisions in place to help women to do so. Breastfeeding takes time to establish, it can be SO difficult at first, and it is a learned skill that can take months for mother and baby to hone.

Even more galling? Businesses often lobby against improvements to maternity benefits - citing the financial burden but women are already being shortchanged. Globally, women routinely get paid less than men - in the UK for example, research shows that women work an average of 63 unpaid days because of the gender pay gap, EACH YEAR and are paid £260,000 less than men over their careers.

A new generation is fighting for change and more and more working mothers are challenging employers on their policies, but there are still far too many cases of women being exploited and robbed of proper recovery and bonding time.

In Hong Kong, even 14 weeks remains well below the World Health Organisation recommendation of a minimum of 18 weeks maternity leave, as well as options for shared parental leave too.

The Career Lounge's Nerice Gietel looks at why employment rights are crucial to better breastfeeding rates:

1) Why do you feel maternity (and paternity leave) is so poor in much of the world? And

what impact does that have on breastfeeding

I believe that one of the reasons is ‘money’. Companies make money when people are there to work. If people are not able to work but a company still has to pay them a salary, or even if they do not have to pay a full salary they have to incur costs to hire someone to replace them in their absence, the company will make a financial loss. The longer the periods of parental leave the higher the costs associated with the absence of the employees on leave.

2) What can be done to challenge and change that?

I think that a better understanding by governments and corporations of the long term benefits

and a realisation that the return on investment in early childhood development compared to

adults and the elderly is much higher could work as an incentive to change policies and


3) Do you feel the COVID19 pandemic may encourage a shift in how companies think -

both in terms of employee well-being, but about flexibility. Do you think there are lessons to be learned

that could benefit the push to improve breastfeeding rates?

Numerous positive changes associated with work have come about through the WFH revolution

which COVID19 has forced upon us. For example, women may have indeed been able to

breastfeed their children for longer. However, whether such changes will continue when the

pandemic recedes, or things ‘return to normal’ is yet to be seen. Companies trying to recoup the

losses made during this time may, in fact, become more strict in their efforts to maximise the

time which workers are ‘at their desks’.

4) Hong Kong has now moved up to 14 weeks, but that is still short of the WHO

recommendations of at least 18 weeks - why do you think that authorities follow public

health messaging saying that it's important to exclusively breastfeed to six months, but

then fail to properly equip mothers to actually do that?

I believe this may be due to pressure by representatives of businesses particularly SME who

they believe may not be able to shoulder the costs of such extensions. For example, soon after

the government announced the recommendation that companies extend maternity leave to 14

weeks, opponents of this recommendation such as the Chairman of the Federation of Hong

Kong Industries, Jimmy Kwok, suggested that responsible workers may not want 14 weeks of

maternity leave. The concern here being that the costs to be shouldered by the employer or

taxpayer are too high.

5) Globally in the US and other parts of the world, the situation is even worse? Why is


Maternity, paternity, and breastfeeding support in different countries tends to reflect the

country’s general attitude towards welfare and state support for families. In some cases, this is

part of a big welfare state system (such as in Scandinavia), while in other places it is part of a

set of policies to encourage childbearing (such as in parts of East Asia). On the other hand, in

the USA there is very little political support for such benefits because of the very significant

resistance from business and the ideological, capitalist view of self-reliance.

6) What is required, globally, to change the situation so families are empowered and

supported to reach WHO targets, if they are able to and so choose?

It will have to be a joint effort between Governments (at different levels and ministries),

businesses, communities, and families. At the moment each of these groups have somewhat

conflicting interests that need to better align. For example, employers and the labour ministry

might want to minimise costs associated with parental leave and breastfeeding, while

individuals, their families, and the ministries of health and social welfare might want to expand

such benefits.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nerice Gietel is a certified executive coach and the founder of The Career Lounge:  a practice that supports professionals to better navigate their careers at transitions points (including changing careers and after becoming a parent). In collaboration with others, she offers programs that help organisations to improve their maternity and parental leave management processes.

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