Recent changes to sex discrimination laws in Hong Kong brought greater protection for new mothers by outlawing behaviour that directly or indirectly victimises women who are breastfeeding or expressing milk.
The new laws mean harassing breastfeeding mothers in a public place or workplace is now unlawful. Behaviour that qualifies as discrimination include creating a hostile environment for breastfeeding mothers, or imposing restrictions that disproportionately affect them.
The law amendments followed a UNICEF study in 2016 which found that over 40 per cent of mothers who have breastfed in public had an “unpleasant experience,” including being stared at and told to breastfeed elsewhere. This is despite public breastfeeding being legal in the city since 1994.
For Liz Thomas, founder of a campaign that has advocated for normalising breastfeeding in Hong Kong since 2019, the new provisions are a welcomed improvement.
“I think it’s a real step forward,” the mother of three told HKFP. “Many people in Hong Kong still feel it’s acceptable to send people who breastfeed to the toilet… so it’s wonderful to actually be able to hold your hand up, and say, no, actually that is discrimination and it’s illegal.”
“Having the weight of the law behind you is a powerful thing and it really might mean things rapidly improve. It also better protects women in the workplace,” she added.
The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding newborns breastfed for at least the first six months to achieve optimal health and development.
“Society doesn’t acknowledge the enormous effort it takes to master and sustain breastfeeding in the modern world,” Thomas told HKFP. “Yes, it may be the biological norm, but if we don’t provide any of the social structures or support… we are abandoning women at a point they most need help.”
She also noted other positive measures the government has implemented to support new mothers, including longer statutory maternity leave. Hong Kong expanded maternity leave last year from ten weeks to 14 last year.
Thomas, however, said she didn’t believe Hong Kong’s laws go quite far enough. The new measures do not place an obligation on employers to provide lactation facilities or other support for breastfeeding employees.
“I think there is still too much vagueness in this. I would have liked very clear legal requirements for pumping breaks and spaces to express milk in the workplace,” she said.
She told HKFP that the taboo around breastfeeding in public places mean women are forced to delay or breastfeed their child in problematic situations.
Challenges include being forced to express milk in unsanitary conditions like a public bathroom or suffering from medical complications such as mastitis, the inflammation of the breast tissue, due to limited or delayed pumping breaks.
The push to provide better support for breastfeeding mothers is an international one.
Sunday marks the start of this year’s “World Breastfeeding Week,” where advocates across the globe join efforts to raise awareness to normalise the practice. This year’s theme is “Protecting Breastfeeding: A shared responsibility.”
“It is a point in the year where advocates talk about the key issues and how to improve things for people who breastfeed,” Thomas said. “It also brings the subject to the forefront of policymakers, healthcare, and government attention, so it is an ideal platform to highlight shortcomings and drive change.”
One major shortcoming in Hong Kong is the lingering taboo around public breastfeeding, even at the city’s public hospitals, despite the new discrimination laws.
In mid-July a woman told Thomas’ breastfeeding campaigns network that she was asked to cover up at one of the city’s main public hospitals for fear that male doctors may see.
“The state hospitals pay lip service to the promotion of breastfeeding but many medical professionals lack up-to-date knowledge on the topic. Lactation consultants are few, and many staff still seem more concerned with arbitrary notions of modesty… than providing proper help,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ campaigning efforts under “#ittasteslikelove” looks to combat this stigma through curating editorialised pictures of breastfeeding mothers and their children on social media. Her team, a group of mothers she has dubbed the “Boob Squad,” also provides support and advice for new breastfeeding mothers.
As part of the week of advocacy in Hong Kong, Thomas has launched a new campaign to raise awareness for the need to provide a supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers. One recent backer of her promotional efforts include the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
The recent discrimination laws are the latest of the government’s efforts to promote and support breastfeeding in the city. In 2017, after the UNICEF survey, it published a non-mandatory code on the marketing of breast formula to “protect breastfeeding” and new mothers from “inappropriate commercial influence.”
But Thomas thinks there is still more to be done. One simple way is for the government to embrace the image of the breastfeeding mother in their publicity materials.
“The government’s own advertising for the law is a little unhelpful. In the posters, the woman they feature is not actually breastfeeding, which seems to subtly undermine the whole thrust of what they are trying to change.”
Correction 19.08.21: A previous version of this article stated that maternity leave was extended from ten to 14 days last year. This has been corrected to ten to 14 weeks.