In 2012, the World Health Assembly endorsed a policy brief that set an ambitious global breastfeeding target.
The assembly, which is a forum of the World Health Organization (WHO) required that the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months across the world be increased to at least 50 per cent.
This target was not so far-fetched. Analyses by WHO indicated that non-exclusive breastfeeding contributed to 11.6 per cent of mortality in children under the age of five years.
In 2011, this figure was equivalent to about 804,000 child deaths. Exclusive breastfeeding, though, has not been a walk in the park, especially for career women in Kenya.
One of the major contributing factors has been lack of breastfeeding spaces at the workplace. Shaming of breastfeeding mothers and lack of private and decent breastfeeding areas has not made the situation any easier for many mothers to bear. This has led to many babies being sub-optimally breastfed.
During the 2018 Breast Feeding Week that was marked in the first week of August, Gloria Ndekei, a Better Business Practices consultant at the Kenya Private Sector Alliance said that 35 corporates in the business alliance had set up breastfeeding areas for their women employees.
By August 2018, some of the companies that hosted breastfeeding centres included Safaricom, World Vision, Kenya Red Cross, International Medical Corps, Mabati Rolling Mills, and the KWFT Microfinance. Individual entrepreneurs have also taken up the challenge and are opening up lactation spaces for their employees.
Janet Mulei, a mother of three, and founder and director, Diamond Junior School, has a room at her institution that is dedicated to any of her breastfeeding staff and parents.
“We have also introduced a program where in addition to the three months maternity leave, new mums work half day until their baby is six months.
This will allow such mothers the opportunity to exclusively breastfeed and bond with their babies,” says Janet.
The quest for private and decent breastfeeding centres has also seen shopping malls create space for their shoppers to tender for their babies. For example, in Nairobi, Two Rivers Mall and the Sarit Centre have designated areas where mothers can breastfeed and change their babies.
Expressing milk has been more challenging than breastfeeding for mothers due to the exposure and process it takes. While a mother can opt to cover her baby while breastfeeding, expressing milk requires more exposure and facilities such as clean water and sinks for thorough cleaning before expressing can be undertaken.
“Employers need to promote and facilitate breastfeeding at work. Donations of tents and booths to be set up in markets and at bus stops can also boost breastfeeding in the informal sector and public spaces,” Laura Kiige, a nutritionist at the United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told the media during last year’s breastfeeding week.
Fortunately, Kenya has not only been promoting exclusive breastfeeding through social advocacy. Currently, there is a law that provides for breastfeeding spaces for new working mothers.
This is the Health Act 2017, which was enacted in 2017. The law required all employers to provide feeding stations for new working mothers.
The Health Act also requires organisations with more than 30 employees to establish a lactation area for mothers. This area should be equipped with a storage refrigerator, changing area for the baby, and a comfortable chair. The Act also requires employers to allow mothers a 40-minute break every four hours during which they can breastfeed or express breast milk for their babies.
Ironically, private employers have been quicker to establish breastfeeding stations than public employers have. A few weeks ago, the Kenya Women Teachers Association (Kewota) called on the Ministry of Education to establish breastfeeding centres in learning institutions. They pointed out that opening up breastfeeding areas for teachers with infant babies will enable them to improve their output in schools.
“We want a law to be put in place to allow women teachers to be accompanied by their house helps to schools where they will be breastfeeding their babies from time to time so as to increase their performance in schools,” Kewota General Secretary Benta Opande.
Despite legal and policy efforts aimed at improving Kenya’s breastfeeding record, statistics from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) show that over a third of children are still not exclusively breastfed.
For example, when she launched the Breastfeeding Week at Pumwani Hospital on August 2 last year, Health CS Sicily Kariuki said that 39 per cent of children are not exclusively breastfed. “We hope that by 2025 we will have bridged that gap and have had 80 per cent of the children exclusively breastfed,” she said. While Kenya has performed better with an exclusive breastfeeding rate of about 61 per cent against the global exclusive breastfeeding prevalence of 38 per cent, it still falls short of the WHO recommendation for universal coverage of 80 per cent.