Women and Work – Maternity Protection


MP-logoCare work consists of unpaid care for family members and friends, as well as paid care for others. As reproductive labour, care work is necessary to the continuation of every society. Breastfeeding (the behaviour) and lactation (the physiological function of making milk) constitute a type of care work that is unique to women. Mother and child function as a biological unit; the mother’s hormonal, nutritional, and immune systems are physically linked with her child’s through their shared activity of feeding. A gender-equitable division of labour would recognise and accommodate the unique nature of the care work that lactating women do. In order for women to advance their enjoyment of all rights in general, it is essential that the contribution that women make to the economy, both in terms of paid work, and unpaid work in the home or elsewhere, is recognised, supported in multiple ways and compensated monetarily. Social reproduction cannot just be an individual responsibility of the parents or family. It is the collective responsibility of the state, employers and society at large. In general, protection is guaranteed through maternity protection legislation. Maternity benefits are basic human rights for women.

For WABA and its partners, the concept of maternity protection is broader than just a few legal provisions, it includes various ways that the workload of childbearing women from all work sectors can be adjusted to accommodate childcare and breastfeeding. For instance family and community members need to prioritise breastfeeding in relation to women’s domestic or community work. Employers need to consider the indirect benefits of breastfeeding – healthier children, less absenteeism, and happier mothers. WABA also stresses the need to develop creative support for women in the informal sector since the great majority of these workers have no formal protection or support systems.


The International Labour Organization (ILO) regulates a wide range of international labour issues through standards that are contained in Conventions and Recommendations adopted by the International Labour Conference. Conventions are like international treaties; once ratified, they create specific, binding obligations on governments. The 1919 Convention Number 3 of the International Labour Organization provides international standards on maternity protection for women employed in industry and commerce; it calls for 12 weeks of maternity leave with cash benefits and prohibition of dismissal and one hour per day breastfeeding breaks. In 1952, this was revised to (Convention 103) include women workers at home and provide for higher protection: 12 weeks maternity leave, higher cash benefits including remunerated breastfeeding breaks and more employment security.

The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) states “Parties shall prohibit, subject to the imposition of sanctions, dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave … shall introduce maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment, seniority and social allowances” . In June 2000, ILO Convention 183 and Recommendation 191 were adopted by 304 countries and came into force in February 2002. The new Convention provides an increase from 12 to 14 weeks maternity leave.

Member organisations

All MP Coalition members advocate for breastfeeding to promote optimal feeding, growth and development, health and thus survival of infants and young children. Collaborating through a coalition increases the synergy and effectiveness of their individual campaign efforts, ensures more visibility and presents a coordinated “voice” for the different audiences. The partners in the coalition are:

  • International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN)
  • International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA)
  • La Leche League International (LLLI) and
  • World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) with technical support from the International Maternal and Child Health Section (IMCH) of Uppsala University and UNICEF.

Our Allies

  • Trade Unions – The global unions, including Public Services International (PSI), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Education International (EI), and national trade unions are important allies who will support breastfeeding for workers if informed of the many advantages of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding advocates need to make the effort to reach out to them.
  • ILO – ILO Offices have been helpful and provide a useful source of information and support on MP efforts, particularly legal applications of the articles of the MP Convention and Recommendation.
  • Feminists/Women’s groups – are potential allies, depending on the campaign strategy and the kinds of groups you reach out to. Keeping a broader perspective on MP and using a gender approach has helped to ensure women’s groups as allies in our MP campaign.


Background on the MP Campaign

To ensure working women’s rights to maternity protection through ILO Conventions, a coalition of NGOs was formed, comprising groups from the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) and International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) , International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA), and the LINKAGES project, with technical assistance from the International Maternal and Child Health Section, Uppsala University, Sweden (IMCH) and UNICEF. On learning that the International Labor Organization (ILO) would revise its Maternity Protection Convention (103) and recommendation (95), WABA’s Women and Work Task Force (WWTF) began a campaign to be part of the revision process The seed for the Maternity Protection Campaign was planted during the WABA Workshop, “Women and Work – From Human Rights to Creative Solutions” which was organised in June 1998 in Quezon City, Philippines. This workshop brought to attention the opportunity to influence the process of revising ILO C103 on MP. Two primary reasons were given by the ILO for revising Convention 103. These were : a) increases in labour market participation by women and b) a low number of ratifications.

After winning a place for breastfeeding in the revised Convention draft in June 1999, WABA’s strategy consisted of three parts:

  • informing our breastfeeding networks about the issues of the ILO campaign;
  • stimulating and enabling national and regional actions; and
  • preparing a Maternity Protection Coalition (MPC) of NGOs for the June ILO Conference.

A small team met in May of 2000 to develop an MPC position and prepare advocacy materials for Geneva. The coalition’s goals were:
For the Convention,

  • At least four months paid maternity leave after birth
  • Two half hour remunerated breastfeeding breaks daily for up to one year after birth
  • A clean space for breastfeeding or expression of breastmilk at or near the workplace

For the Recommendation,

  • At least six month paid maternity leave after birth

Partly through hard work and strategic action, the Coalition was able to join governments, trade unions, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and others in successfully advocating the passage through the ILO Conference in June 2000 of Maternity Protection Convention 183 and Recommendation 191.

The International Labor Organization reviewed the 1952 Maternity Protection Convention 103 and Recommendation 95 in its annual conferences in 1999 and 2000.
Click here to read all about what happened at the ILO Conference in 2000.

Highlights of the outcomes include

  • Minimum maternity leave was raised from 12 to 14weeks in the Convention and from 14 to 18 weeks in the Recommendation.
  • For a period after her maternity leave, a woman cannot be fired because she is breastfeeding.
  • In the Convention, breastfeeding breaks are recognized as a woman’s right
  • Combining breastfeeding breaks to shorten the work-day, a provision from Recommendation 95, is now part of the Convention

MPC perspective about the gains and losses of the new Convention as compared to the previous Convention.

Gains & Losses
What are the pluses and minuses of these agreementsfor breastfeeding women at work?

SCOPE: The Convention covers all employed women, in-cluding those in the informal sector who have an employer.

  • A new provision on health protection of pregnant andbreastfeeding women has been added.
  • Minimum maternity leave was raised from 12 to 14weeks in the Convention and from 14 to 18 weeks in theRecommendation.
  • A six-week period of compulsory postnatal leave wasreturned to the Convention; the length had not been speci-fied in the previous draft. The Convention allows na-tions to change this directive if workers, employers, andgovernments all agree to shorten compulsory leave orhave none at all.
  • For a period after her maternity leave, a woman cannotbe fired because she is breastfeeding. If a breastfeedingwoman is fired and files a complaint, her employer hasthe burden of proving that breastfeeding was not thecause of her termination.
  • In the Convention, breastfeeding breaks are recognisedas a woman’s right.
  • Combining breastfeeding breaks to shorten the work-day, a provision from Recommendation 95, is now partof the Convention.
  • The provision that provides for breastfeeding breaks onpaid time, counted as work time, was successfully de-fended against deletion or downgrading.
  • Obtaining a medical certificate to qualify for longer ormore frequent nursing breaks could be a hardship forwomen with little access to a doctor. The new Recom-mendation allows for “other appropriate certification asdetermined by national law and practice” as an alterna-tive to a medical certificate.

SCOPE: Nations can exclude categories of employed womenif employers, workers, and government agree. However, theymust report periodically on what they are doing to extendthe coverage of the Convention to those groups.Convention 103 protected women from dismissal for anyreason while on maternity leave. Convention 183 pro-vides longer protection but allows dismissal for reasonsunrelated to maternity.

  • The duration of a woman’s entitlement to nursing breaksis left up to national law and practice. Previously noduration was specified.
  • The length and number of breastfeeding breaks werestated in Convention 3 as two half-hour breaks daily.The new Convention specifies one or more daily breaksand leaves the exact number and length up to nationallaw and practice.
  • Recommendation 95 encouraged member states to ad-vance nursing breaks to 1½ hours daily. There is nosuch language in the new recommendation.
  • Recommendation 95 suggested subsidising the costs ofworkplace facilities at the expense of the community orby compulsory social insurance. The new recommenda-tion does not say who should pay for the facilities.


Follow up of the MP Campaign

The ILO’s international minimum standard of 14 weeks set out in Convention 183, provides a good starting place. Several international documents single out the workplace specifically as an area where breastfeeding women should receive protection. The ILO, trade unions, professional associations, women’s groups and the breastfeeding movement have long been campaigning for maternity protection at the workplace. They have prepared training kits, information sheets and booklets, held meetings and led marches. The Maternity Protection Coalition (MPC) fully supports this work focusing on health and nutrition benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and baby. Since the adoption of C183 in 2000, the MP Coalition continues to campaign for stronger maternity protection.

Two prominent campaign strategies include:

  • Production of a MP Campaign Kit – a tool that provides information to assist in national ratification campaigns for C183, improved national legislation or better collective bargaining agreements – always with a breastfeeding perspective.
  • To support efforts at grass-roots level, with the goal of raising the awareness of women, their families, and their communities about ways to support women to combine breastfeeding and work.

Some ideas to support the MP Campaign
The MPC welcomes inquiries and input from all NGOs that prioritise the right of women to work and to breastfeed. Note the following ideas and contact an MP Coalition member:

  • Identify national organisations working for better MP laws and regulations in your country or your neighbourhood. Action can be taken at a local, national, regional or international level.
  • Talk to workers and trade unions to find out how their workplaces support childbearing women. Every worker can play a role to ensure that breastfeeding is protected.
  • Seek out employers who support their breastfeeding employees and give them public recognition.
  • Know your own country’s MP laws. Ensure that parents understand how to claim their entitlements. Check to see that employers actually follow the laws.
  • Build community support for breastfeeding in order to assist mothers in the informal sector and mothers who are doing family care at home.
  • Tell us your story – best practice examples as well as particularly difficult situations, concerning, for example, your country’s legislation, model employers, a specific campaign.