…..Breastfeeding rooms for MPs
Australian parliamentarian Larissa Waters made international news headlines in 2017 when she became the first politician to breastfeed during a sitting of that country’s legislative assembly.
Two years earlier, there was intense backlash after a government minister, Kelly O’Dwyer, who was breastfeeding at the time, was asked to consider expressing milk to avoid missing parliamentary duties.
Breastfeeding at work has been considered an intensely sensitive subject in many parliaments around the world, with Zimbabwe being no exception.
In 2015, legislator Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga caused a mini-raucous in the House of Assembly after she brought a baby to prove that Parliament was not women-friendly.
She argued that Parliament’s Standing Rules and Orders have no provision allowing lawmakers time out to breastfeed.
Speaker of the National Assembly, Advocate Jacob Mudenda, acknowledged the protest and undertook to provide facilities for breastfeeding for lawmakers.
In fulfilment of the pledge, Parliament will this month unveil a breastfeeding room for legislators and staff.
Parliament has collaborated with a local non-governmental organisation — the Zimbabwe Civil Society Organisation Scaling Up Nutrition Alliance (ZCSOSUNA) — to set up a feeding room for nursing mothers. Clerk of Parliament Mr Kennedy Chokuda said the House has received furniture for the rooms.
“We have already taken delivery of the furniture for the rooms,” said Mr Chokuda.
“The breastfeeding rooms will give an opportunity to legislators and other female employees to come to work with their babies, and it helps them to have a peace of mind.”
Health experts recommend that a new-born baby is exclusively breastfed for the first six months. Studies have shown that the first 1 000 days of an infant are most crucial in its brain and general development.
Zimbabwe’s labour laws grant workers three months maternity leave and an additional month for nursing during working hours.
Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health and Child Care chairperson Dr Ruth Labode said the initiative came at a time when the House has more young female parliamentarians than ever before.
“We now have more young female legislators in Parliament who have children and are breastfeeding,” said Dr Labode.
“Once it’s done they can make use of that facility. If we are to check the environment at most workplaces, women have to go to the toilet and express milk from their breasts when they are engorged with milk; it means the environment is not supportive.”
She said women then experience challenges in storing the breast milk.
“With the establishment of the parent-friendly rooms, women can store this milk and take it home so that children have adequate nutrition.”
ZCSOSUNA national coordinator Mr Kudakwashe Zombe said the country’s labour laws do not provide for adequate maternity leave to allow lactating mothers to breastfeed their babies. He said there was need for innovative ways to accommodate working women through creating parent-friendly workstations.
The breastfeeding room at Parliament, added Zombe, allows women the convenience to express their milk freely and also feed their babies.
“So we have been given approval to establish the parent-friendly room,” he said.
“Our approval came out last year in December, and we have started acquiring the equipment to be used in the rooms. We hope that by end of this month, we should hand over the room to Parliament. The room should be working by end of this month.”
Mr Zombe said they want Parliament to take a leading role in popularising the concept of women-friendly workplaces.
“Women are given 90 days of maternity leave and yet we say they should exclusively breastfeed their children for six months and continue breastfeeding up to 24 months and even beyond.
“We are trying to ensure that Parliament takes on board this initiative and then it is gradually rolled out through the Government ministries and the private sector.”
Health experts argue that when the working environment is parent-friendly, women generally become more productive.
Paediatrician Dr Alex Mhaka said breastfeeding during the early months provides babies with the best start in life.
“Breast milk acts as a baby’s first vaccine, providing critical protection from diseases and even death,” said Dr Mhaka.
“Breastfeeding also allows for secure attachment, cognitive development and reduces the burden of childhood and maternal illness, lowering healthcare costs, creating healthier families and strengthening the development of societies.”
According to a UNICEF Global Guide for Employers, family-friendly workplaces are associated with increased staff retention — particularly for skilled staff — and therefore lower recruitment and training costs, improved employee productivity and a more diverse workforce.
“Women who work in breastfeeding-friendly workplaces may return to work earlier after childbirth,” reads the guide in part.