By 7am Jane Mangulenje, a Blantyre-based insurance company employee, is physically ready for work.
However, she is bothered to leave her three-month-old baby at home.
“My baby rejects artificial milk. Thus, I have to be home to breastfeed her. But I can’t because I have to be in office,” she laments.
Like most employees, Mangulenje, who resides in Bangwe Township and works in Blantyre central business district (CBD), is entitled to 60 days maternity leave. She exhausted them a fortnight ago and says she breastfeeds her baby in the morning and evening.
“I wish I could go home for lunch, but apart from demanding more than an hour of the break time which I am entitled to, it is expensive to travel to and from home,” she narrates.
Mangulenje says her maid feeds the baby vegetable soup and other liquid foods which is not enough.
She is not alone. Lusungu Zgambo, 33, works at a bank in Blantyre and is serving the first month of her maternity leave. She is already panicking.
“Obviously, I will need a maid to take care of my baby, but whether I will be able to breastfeed during the day, is something I am already battling with,” she says.
World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a six-month exclusive breastfeeding for all children. WHO says exclusive breastfeeding achieves optimal growth, development and health and that it should be complemented by nutritious suplimentary foods.
While supplementary foods are accessible to most mothers, exclusive breastfeeding remains a challenge to working class mothers.
However, health researchers insist a six-month exclusive breastfeeding is recommended. In vox pop interviews, nine of the 10 working mothers we randomly sampled in Blantyre said the 60-day maternity leave is not enough. Angela Chirwa said she had to take a four-month unpaid leave to achieve the recommended exclusive breastfeeding period. Others said they employed maids to feed the babies with supplementary foods when they are away.
But Zgambo argues: “I believe a baby needs motherly love, which is paramount. Nannies should only help, but not replace breastfeeding.”
However, breastfeeding at the workplace faces a number of challenges. Most companies have no special rooms for breastfeeding and some employers do not allow their staff to go home during lunch break. Zgambo is one of them. As an employee at a bank, they are not supposed to leave the office until knock off time.
“How I wish there was a special room for breastfeeding or just an opportunity to go home to breastfeed at break time,” she says.
This has created a market for artificial milk. Some women have opted for expressing breast milk into a bottle to feed the baby during their absence.
However, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital senior nursing officer Lucia Mbulaje warns against the practice.
“Breast milk can be contaminated if the mother does not follow proper hygienic procedures. It demands serious hygiene and if properly handled, the milk can be safe. However, chances of being contaminated are high,” she explains.
Amid these challenges, there are concerns that breastfeeding levels are falling drastically. According to the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), breastfeeding levels in Malawi have fallen from 71 to 61 percent.
Ministry of Health spokesperson Joshua Malango attributes this to increased number of working women, limited knowledge on the importance of breastfeeding and fears by HIV positive mothers to transmit the virus to their children.
Zgambo agrees: “Some women fear their breasts would sag. Women in towns also treasure their breasts and can hardly breastfeed in public.”
Chancellor College-based sociologist Charles Chilimampunga applies history to the debate.
“It is culturally correct for Malawian women to breastfeed in public. Remember in the past, women walked bare-breasted.
“But now some women feel they are treated as sex objects. So, breastfeeding in public might make them feel reinforcing that sex object stereotype,” he says.
Chancellor College law lecturer Sunduzwayo Madise, who once worked as a workers’ rights activist, says it is time women are motivated to exclusively breastfeed anywhere. He says employers should lead by example.
“Companies can construct nurseries where women can put their babies and breastfeed them during break time. This has advantages as she would go back to work early and save costs of employing a nanny,” he says.
Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) deputy director Jessie Ching’oma says this is doable and would save many children from malnutrition.
“In fact some organisations have already started this on a small scale and we want this to spread across,” she says.
Malango says: “Government is advocating for a 14-week maternity leave, the minimum recommended by International Labour Organisation.
“We also want employees to be allowed to breastfeed during lunch-break.” n