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Suckling in silence

New Zealand women who want to breastfeed their babies and be in paid work often find this an untenable combination, according to recent research.

Suckling in Silence is the apt title of Judith Galtry's Women's Studies PhD thesis undertaken at Victoria University of Wellington.

Her research explores the extent to which breastfeeding is acknowledged as an issue affecting women's involvement in the workforce in New Zealand, Sweden and the United States.

Before having her daughter in 1991, Judith Galtry worked in a health care institution in Porirua. Most of her co-workers were women and many were Polynesian. Most were in families that relied upon these women for their income.

It was through this experience that she started to think about the real difficulties women, particularly those in low-income jobs, face if they want to breastfeed their babies. This experience, in conjunction with her background in health research, women's health issues and feminism, led her to her thesis topic.

Ms Galtry examined the legal provisions in New Zealand, Sweden and the United States which determine the parental leave and other support that employers must make available to women having children.

She also looked at the policy environment, both through analysis of policy documents and discussions with health and labour market researchers and policymakers in all three countries.

"From the early 1970s feminist groups and organisations have been working to increase women's involvement in the workforce, and have sought gender equality in paid work," says Ms Galtry.

"However, while the issue of pregnancy and workforce participation was usually addressed in feminist analyses, the issue of breastfeeding was largely ignored.

"Breastfeeding can be and often is regarded as an optional practice, and therefore easily relegated to the realm of 'individual choice'.

"As long as it is viewed this way women, particularly those in low-paid and low-status jobs with little bargaining power, will find it hard to combine paid work and breastfeeding."

What was not so well established in the 1970s but is now clear, is that breastfeeding confers significant health benefits on both mother and child, and is strongly recommended by public health bodies in both the developing and developed world. Breastfeeding, Judith Galtry argues, is not a matter of personal choice alone but an important public health issue.

Unlike Sweden, which has generous parental leave provisions as well as collective agreements for breastfeeding breaks in the workplace, New Zealand and the United States are two of the few developed countries which do not have either paid parental leave policies or provisions for workplace breastfeeding breaks.

The thesis argues that there is a need for governments and employers to develop a set of practical and operational policies which will help women to juggle what is not just a dual burden, but often a triple burden of paid work, unpaid work and breastfeeding.

"The need for this has become particularly pressing in New Zealand given the greater involvement of women with young children in the workforce since 1990," she says.

Judith Galtry has published a number of papers in such journals as Gender and Society, Health Care for Women International, Feminist Economics, New Zealand Journal of Women's Studies and Social Policy Journal of New Zealand. She has also contributed to books on the subject and made presentations at several national and international conferences.

She attracted a number of funding sources for her research including a Victoria University Foundation scholarship, a McCarthy Fellowship, and a successful application, endorsed by the Ministry of Women's Affairs, to the Ministry of Research Science and Technology's Technical Participatory Funding Scheme. These and other funds enabled her to travel to the United States and Sweden in 1997, and to a conference in Manila in 1998. In 1999 she was funded by an international NGO to attend the International Labour Organisation's revision of its Maternity Protection Convention. Early in 2000, she was invited by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF to prepare and present a research paper on policies and practices that support the integration of breastfeeding and paid work in both industrialised and developing countries.

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