SUCCESSIVE governments have celebrated women’s inclusion into formal economy; however it did not ensure a congenial working environment for women. Maternity benefits are legally acknowledged but not systematically implemented in all sectors. Child care facilities barely exist. In this situation, breast feeding working mothers are often found in a double bind; infant’s welfare on the one hand and her work responsibility and career on the other hand. The High Court rule issued on Monday asking the government to explain why it should not set-up breast feeding corners in public places is an historic move in this regard. The rule came following a petition filed by an aggrieved mother, also a lawyer and her breast feeding son following an experience at Cox’s Bazaar airport when she was unable to feed her son in a crowded, cramped airport lobby. There is no scope of treating her experience in isolation, say the petitioners, as most women feel uncomfortable feeding their children in workplaces, shopping malls, airports, bus terminals and railway stations. In this context, the government, more specifically the secretaries of cabinet divisions and ministry of women and children affairs must respond to the High Court directive weighing in its monumental significance in social development of the country.
Establishing breast feeding corners is a stepping stone towards ensuring a friendly and productive work environment for women, but infrastructure alone cannot do away with the ideological discomfort around the presence of breast feeding mother in public place. In most formal sectors, pregnant women and breast feeding mothers as part of the labour force, are seen as economic burden. In apparel industrial sector, there is legal provision for women workers to enjoy 16 weeks of maternity leave. However, in practice, factory management often deprive them of their legally entitled benefits. A 2018 study found that only 28.7 per cent of the workers get maternity leave for four months, it also found that the authority dilly-dally in paying the salary during the leave which is a violation of the labour law. There are reported instances from industrial sectors in which the factory management fired pregnant workers to avoid paying the maternity benefit. Generally, child care centres are there as mere decorative, non-functional entities only to meet the compliance requirements of the factory inspection department or the industry standards of global buyers. Therefore, the infrastructure development and changes in law should come with awareness building programmes that will encourage public, more specifically the employers of public and private sectors, to respect women’s reproductive role.
For the government to prove its true commitment to women’s economic empowerment, it must comply with the High Court directive and set up breast feeding corners in public places. In doing so, it must also take steps to ensure that employers judiciously comply with the maternity rights provisions stipulated in the labour law. Implementation of the long standing demand for child care centre in workplace should now be a priority policy concern. More importantly, the government needs to review its gender development policies and revisit the biased ways it has considered economic and ideological value of women’s reproductive labour.
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