WOMEN-FRIENDLY workplaces are still a distant reality, making job a challenge for working mothers, especially breastfeeding mothers. Public places are also not friendly towards women with infants. Successive governments have vouched for women’s empowerment but have ensured no institutional support for child care. In this context the High Court on Tuesday directed the government to ensure that all workplaces should have breastfeeding corners and childcare centres. The directive came on a writ petition of October 2019 that highlighted the struggle of breastfeeding mothers at work and in public places. In absence of designated corners, many mothers are either forced to feed their children in an uncomfortable situation or chose not to feed them at all. It is welcome that authorities have positively responded to the earlier court directive and six railway stations, launch terminals at Sadarghat and in Naryanganj, the Dhaka airport and the passport office in Dhaka have already set up breastfeeding corners. Fourteen other stations are in the process of installing childcare centres. This is a stepping stone towards building an enabling working environment for women.
The labour law acknowledges maternity rights of women and has made it mandatory for employers to have childcare facilities. However, the legal provision has remained ignored as matters of child care and breastfeeding have largely been seen as feminine issues. Women compromising their career to perform their reproductive duties are commonplace. In the industrial sector, particularly in apparel industries, women hide their pregnancy as long as they can to avoid being fired. In the sector, the factory management often fire pregnant workers to avoid giving maternity benefits. A 2018 study finds that only 28.7 per cent of workers get maternity leave for four months, the authorities are also reluctant to pay the wages during the leave which is a violation of the labour law. Women in public services are not in any better situation. Childcare centres in government offices mostly do not exist; and when they do, they are ill equipped and without the required staff. The reality underscores the lack of political will of the government because the court gave the directive to implement what should have already been in place.
The political party in power has publicised its successes in ensuring women’s participation and representation in political and economic activities, but has refused to provide the needed institutional support for women to progress. The government must, therefore, comply with the court directive and set up breastfeeding corners and childcare centres in all workplaces to prove its commitment to women’s economic empowerment. The government must also strengthen its monitoring mechanism to ensure that employers comply with the court order and do not manipulate the system to avoid paying maternity benefits. It should also consider the provision for financial penalties for non-compliant employers. The government, more importantly, needs to review its gender development policies and revisit the biased way it has considered economic and ideological value of women’s reproductive labour.
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