Longer maternity leave is an investment in today’s working women — and tomorrow’s workforce

A breastfeeding counselor assists and counsels a woman about proper breastfeeding practices at the lactation station at the Naga City Hall in Camarines Sur. The lactation centre is open to all women, including employees of the City Hall as well as other women visiting the City Hall for services. ©UNICEF Philippines/2016/Shehzad Noorani

The Philippines is a global leader in women’s and children’s rights. It’s the highest ranked country in Asia for gender equality and the 10th highest in the Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum. It was also an early adopter of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a commitment the government regularly reaffirms.

The Philippines is currently on the verge of its next milestone opportunity to affirm its commitment to women and children as the country awaits the signing by the President of a policy universally recognized for benefitting individuals, families and society: the extension of paid maternity leave.

Exclusive breastfeeding (feeding a child only breastmilk and nothing else) should be initiated within an hour of birth, and continued for six months. ©UNICEF Philippines

Longer paid maternity leave isn’t just a bonus or a benefit for women and children — it’s a fundamental contributor to our national health, social and economic development. And that’s because one important thing that maternity protection actually protects is breastfeeding.

Worldwide, breastfeeding is one of the world’s most impactful, cost-effective, and equitable interventions to save lives and promote life-long health and wellness. UNICEF and WHO recommend six months of exclusive breastfeeding — meaning no water, liquids or food — to give infants the full health benefits of breastmilk and to strengthen bonds with their mothers.

But a mother’s early return to work is a universal barrier to breastfeeding. Imagine the difficulties of a working mother trying to feed her infant breastmilk 10 to 12 times per day for six months when she returns to work after just two months of maternity leave.

It’s no surprise then that women are 2.5 times more likely to breastfeed where it is protected, promoted, and supported. But to be clear: breastfeeding doesn’t just benefit babies. It benefits mothers, families, employers, the government — even our entire economy — through a mix of health, social, and economic benefits.

First and foremost, longer paid maternity leave is directly associated with reductions in child mortality. Data analyzed from 300,000 live births in 20 low- and middle-income countries found that longer maternity leave is associated with lower infant mortality (Nandi, A. et al. [2016]. Increased Duration of Paid Maternity Leave Lowers Infant Mortality in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Quasi-Experimental Study). For each month of additional paid leave, there was a reduction of nearly eight infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

The lactation station at Naga People’s Mall (public market) provides mothers a space where they can express milk and breastfeed their infants. ©UNICEF Philippines/2015/AC Dimatatac

Even where the rates of infant deaths are low, breastfeeding ensures that children get the healthiest possible start to life — growing up to be stronger, smarter, and more productive. Breastfeeding supports strong immune systems and protects against diarrhea and pneumonia. The unparalleled nutrition a baby receives from breastmilk is associated with increased IQ, increased educational attainment, and higher life-long earning potential.

Maternity protection benefits mothers’ health directly, as well. Longer breastfeeding reduces a mother’s risk of breast cancer and protects against ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes. Mothers who breastfeed have lower post-partum depression rates.

Maternity protection also provides direct benefits to employers. Research shows that women who receive stronger benefits are more productive and more loyal to their employers, which contributes to reduced turnover and absenteeism. These mothers report higher job satisfaction, feel more positive about the company, and intend to make the company their long-term employer.

For governments, recommended breastfeeding practices reduce healthcare expenditures, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars due to fewer prescriptions and hospitalizations. Low breastfeeding rates, however, are associated with significant costs. A study on the Cost of Not Breastfeeding (Walters D, et al [2018]. The Cost of Not Breastfeeding: Global Results From A New Tool) shows that inadequate breastfeeding in the Philippines is attributed with 8,924 child deaths per year, US$16.3 million in health system costs, US$1.4 billion in future economic costs from maternal and child mortality, and US$2.3 billion in economic losses resulting from cognitive impairment.

Put simply, longer maternity leave is a smart investment in our children, our families and our entire economy.

November 2019 will mark the 100-year anniversary of the first International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on Maternity Protection — a landmark policy recommendation that, for the first time, recognized the critical dual role that women play in both our workforce and our families. We can now welcome this occasion not just in words but with meaningful action.

We applaud our legislators for their decision to pass a stronger maternity leave policy and provide Filipino mothers with longer duration of leave. We hope that the Expanded Maternity Leave Bill will soon be signed into a law.

No woman should have to choose between providing for her family economically and providing the best nourishment for her infant. In every household, the support of each family member, especially those of fathers is important. And we can help families by doing our part. By choosing strong maternity protection, we choose the health and welfare of today’s working women — while also supporting a strong, healthy and productive next generation of Filipino leaders.


Authors:

  • Romeo Dongeto, Executive Director, Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development
  • Lotta Sylwander, Country Representative, UNICEF Philippines
  • Roger Mathisen, Regional Director, Alive & Thrive Southeast Asia