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New Convention protects breastfeeding for working mothers

22 June 2000

Last week in Geneva, at the 88th Conference of the International Labour Organisation, governments from around the world voted, by a large majority of 304 to 22 (with 116 abstentions), to adopt a new Convention to protect the rights of working women when they are pregnant or have young children. This new Convention replaces the existing 1952 Convention. After it has been ratified by two countries it becomes international law. The previous Convention was ratified by 37 countries; it is hoped that even more governments will sign on to the new Convention.

Breastfeeding advocacy groups such as the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) and trade unions have been lobbying for new standards which will protect a woman's right to breastfeed. Currently many women around the world are entitled to only a short period of paid maternity leave. If they want to breastfeed their baby, this situation, alongside unfavourable conditions and attitudes at the workplace, combines to make breastfeeding very difficult.

The UK abstained and was the only European country not to vote in favour of the new Convention. This is apparently because of the review of maternity and parental leave which is underway. (At the moment in the UK there is legislation for maternity leave up to 18 weeks - but it is not at full, or even two thirds rate of pay.) Baby Milk Action - the UK IBFAN group - urges the UK Government to pass legislation which encompasses all the provisions of the new Convention.

In the UK 19% of women surveyed (Foster et al 1997) stated that returning to work was a reason for stopping breastfeeding before their babies reached the age of 3 months, despite recommendations that babies should be exclusively breastfed for about six months.

Tessa Martyn, Health Campaigns Co-ordinator for Baby Milk Action said:

"We are delighted that the new Convention has been adopted by such a large majority and hope that it will enable women who choose to breastfeed do so for longer and, when at work, can do so in a more supportive environment. It is ridiculous that women still have to either stop breastfeeding because they want to return to work, or secretly express milk - often in the staff toilet. Breastfeeding is a right of mothers and is a fundamental component in assuring a child's right to food, health and care."

The new Convention includes the following provisions:

    • extended maternity leave from 12 to 14 weeks.
    • the right of women to return to their same job after maternity leave
    • provision for breastfeeding breaks at work - "which shall be counted as working time and remunerated accordingly."

Although IBFAN had hoped that paid maternity leave would be extended to 26 weeks (to facilitate exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months) the extension from 12 to 14 weeks is welcomed as it demonstrates recognition of the importance not only of women in the workplace, but also of the value of breastfeeding.

For more information contact: Baby Milk Action, 23 St Andrew's Street, Cambridge, CB2 3AX,
Tel: 01223 464420,

ILO Campaign website:

ILO website, with full text of the Convention:

Additional notes for editors:

IBFAN: The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), of which Baby Milk Action is a member, is a global network of organisations and individuals - with over 150 groups in over 90 countries.

Breastfeeding: The World Health Assembly (WHA) and UNICEF (Lhotska and Armstrong 1999) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months, and then continued, with appropriate complementary foods introduced, up until 2 years of age and beyond. Breastfeeding, as the physiological norm, provides optimal nutrition for the vast majority of infants. There is now a huge body of research which demonstrates that artificial feeding is associated with a number of health disadvantages - not only for the infant but for the mother as well.

Length of maternity leave: Interestingly many of the countries who voted against the new Convention (including 6 Latin American countries) did so as they felt that the provisions were not strong enough to adequately protect the rights of breastfeeding women. Some Nordic countries have up to one year paid leave

References: Foster K, Lader D, Cheesebrough S (1997) Infant Feeding 1995. Office of national Surveys: London. Lhotska L, Armstrong H (1999) UNICEF's Recommended Length of Exclusive Breastfeeding. UNICEF, WABALINK 20/INSERT 3.

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