Will Rwanda’s state-funded maternity benefits boost breastfeeding rate?

There is an ongoing debate regarding paid maternity leave and public breastfeeding, especially with people shaming nursing mothers who are nourishing their hungry babies. While this is ongoing, the gap between breastfed babies and bottle-fed babies are widening as there is a decline in breastfeeding.

The decline in breastfeeding became evident in 1991 when a study by David Rush and Alan Ryan discovered a drop in prolonged breastfeeding or breastfeeding that lasted up to 6 months. Although there have been significant changes in how infants are fed in the 19th and 20th  century, what remained constant is the drop in breastfed babies.

Each year, 7.6 million babies worldwide are never breastfed, and most breastfed babies do not reach the stipulated 6 months benchmark. A large percentage of these inadequately breastfed babies are from working-nursing mothers as employed mothers usually find returning to work after putting to birth a significant barrier to breastfeeding.

According to The International Labour Organization (ILO), about 830 million working women worldwide are being deprived of adequate maternity leave and 80 percent of these women live in Africa and Asia.

Women who work full time are more likely to stop breastfeeding earlier than their part-time and stay home counterparts, this is largely due to the lack of provision for breastfeeding babies at work.

Investigating maternity leave in 52 African countries, ILO discovered that about 25 African countries permitted maternity leave of 14 weeks while 35 percent granted maternity leave from 12 to 13 weeks. Meanwhile, an ILO expert on labour law Laura Addati told DW that, “the employer is obliged to pay for maternity leave in its entirety in 86 percent of the African countries.”

Considering the global campaigns championing breastfeeding and the health benefits of it, Rwanda through campaign’s and the proposal of a law has decided to boost the rate of breastfeeding by taking paid maternity leave in its public sector a step further.

In February, Rwanda’s parliament promulgated a new law that would enable Rwandan women in state employ to receive full pay during the existing six weeks of maternity leave, as well as entitlement to state-funded maternity benefit for six weeks thereafter. This in addition to the county’s 1,000 days campaign to serve as a mechanism to protect breastfeeding rights.

The breastfeeding campaign which involved religious leaders, leaders at both central and local government levels, private sector players and other authorities aims to create a collaborative relationship between employers and workers, and support women in need of breastfeeding at workplaces.

Currently, Rwanda has the highest word breastfeeding rate of 87.3 percent and it still ranks top 5 for representation of women in the workforce (51.5 percent). The law on maternity leave is under scrutiny in Parliament and if approved by President Paul Kagame, it would see to the financing of state employed mothers on maternity leave by imposing a 0.6 percent levy on the salaries of all state employees.

Rwanda is taking a step in the right direction at boosting the number of breastfed babies and partly financing maternity leave. But is the 12 weeks paid maternity leave enough to boost the numbers?

Paid parental leave has been linked to higher birth weights and lower rates of infant mortality. Mothers who get paid leave breastfeed more and for longer hours. Reports show that 69.4 percent initiated breastfeeding with positive variation by both total and paid maternity leave length, and time of return to work.

Compared with those returning to work within 1 to 6 weeks, women who had not yet returned to work had a greater odd of breastfeeding. In addition to higher breastfeeding chances, an experiment carried out by Google, when it extended its paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks show a 50 percent increase in employee retention among women who had babies.

In 2001, the World Health Organisation announced exclusive breastfeeding for a period of 6 months is best for babies. Also, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and continued breastfeeding for next 2 years or more.

Termed the first of its kind in Africa, Rwanda’s proposed law might increase the already high rate of breastfeeding in the country but without adequate lactation facilities in organisations or enforced breastfeeding breaks, the number might not be significant as all of these things make a difference to nursing moms in the workplace and provide a real option for those looking to breastfeed after they return to work.

Benefits of breastfeeding

Every available data show that breastfeeding is beneficial to both mother and child.

Breast milk provides the ideal nutrition for infants because it has a nearly perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat. Breast milk contains antibodies that help fight off viruses and bacteria in babies. Breastfeeding lowers a baby’s risk of having asthma or allergies.

Breastfeeding has been linked to higher IQ scores in later childhood. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), breastfeeding also plays a role in the prevention of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

It is known as “a baby’s first vaccine” because of its ability to protect babies from potentially deadly diseases.

Experts also note that the death of an estimated 820,000 children under the age of five could be prevented globally with increased breastfeeding.

In 2009, researchers found that women who nursed for at least 24 months over the course of their reproductive lifespan had a 23 percent lower risk of developing heart disease. Women who breast fed for a longer duration have a lower risk for contracting rheumatoid arthritis (RA) than women who breast fed for a shorter duration or who had never breast fed.