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If there were a way to stop time from ticking, Jennilyn Jimenez would have instantly considered that option. It's just been a month since she gave birth to her son, and now will only have a month more to take care of him before she goes back to work. "He's still very fragile, very small and he depends on me for breastfeeding," said 25-year-old mother of two. "It's sad that I have to leave him to the care of my aging mother very soon." Jimenez works as a saleslady in a prominent department store. She works at least 12 hours a day six days a week. "Apart from the time you are in your work, you have to spend time to prepare yourself and to travel to and from the workplace," she added. She said that when she goes back to work, her schedule also goes back to full circle, usually starting at 5 a.m. to prepare herself, then going off to work at 7 a.m., and coming back home at 12 midnight. "What time will then be left for me to take care of my baby? If only we had enough money so I can stop working," sighed Jimenez, whose husband also works as a sales associate of the same department store. Jimenez's predicament is not isolated in the Philippines. This is, in fact, a common scenario for most working mothers who, under the Social Security Law (Republic Act 8282), are given a paid maternity leave of only 60 days or 8.5 weeks for those who gave birth through normal delivery, and 78 days for those who went through caesarian section. The length of time is less than the 14 weeks maternity leave stated in the 2000 International Labor Organization (ILO) Maternity Protection Convention No. 183, which the Philippines has yet to ratify. As a result, according to ILO, most working mothers are forced to give up exclusively breastfeeding their children from zero to six months and continued breastfeeding six months up to two years and beyond. According to the 2011 National Nutrition Results, only 52 percent of babies in the Philippines are breastfed within one hour of delivery, 47 percent of children zero to six months are exclusively breastfed, 45 percent of children six to 23 months are breastfed and timely provided or fed with adequate and safe nutritious complementary food. As working mothers forego breastfeeding, they would have to resort to feeding their babies with expensive infant formula. In the Philippines, as reported by the World Health Organization, a poor family (with an average income of P7,280 a month for a family of five) needs to spend about 30 percent of their income to milk formula to be able to feed an infant. This means an automatic cut on their expenditure on other basic needs. "It would be harder to provide the needs for the other members of the family if the milk formula eats too much of the family’s budget," indicated an ILO briefer on breastfeeding. Maternity protection for women workers has been a core issue for ILO since 1919 when it adopted the first international labor convention on this issue. It is also for this reason that the ILO in the Philippines is now lobbying for a longer paid maternity leave for working mothers here. "A longer paid maternity leave will give mothers a longer time to take care of their babies and bond with them, and a stronger chance for them to complete exclusive breastfeeding for six months," said Lady Kristine Cruz, ILO’s project coordinator in the Philippines. Benefits of breastfeeding Science has proven the benefits of breastfeeding to the child's health. It increases the baby’s resistance to infections and enhances neurological development that result in higher IQs, among others. Breast milk provides complete nutrition, in the right proportions – at least 400 nutrients – including hormones and disease-fighting compounds that cannot be found in any breast milk substitute. WHO reported that poor breastfeeding practices in the Philippines have resulted in additional 1.2 million more cases of diarrhea and pneumonia. Nine out of 10 infants below six months old who died were not breastfed. Cases of improper feeding, which include lack or absence of breastfeeding, account for 16,000 out of 82,000 deaths for children five years old and below. In a national survey conducted in 2005, results showed that one-fourth of Filipino children between zero and five years old were either stunted or underweight. Breastfeeding also creates healthy mothers. It helps in the quick return of uterus to normal size and reduces blood loss. It also lowers insulin needs in diabetic mothers, and decreases risks of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers as well as of osteoporosis and bone fracture. A less than ideal maternity leave is also partly blamed for the high incidence of maternal deaths, of which ninety percent occur in developing countries like the Philippines. ILO explained that without paid maternity leave, poverty and the risks of lost income force many women to return to work too early, before they have physically recovered from childbirth. "While most attention to maternal health and mortality has justifiably focused on health services and family planning, mothers are also workers, with particular need of support to protect their health while working and to ensure their economic security during pregnancy and after childbirth," stated an ILO briefer. Longer maternity leave bills More and more countries have adopted a longer paid maternity leave for their mothers. Norway gives up to 46 weeks or 10.5 months paid maternity leave to its women. Even in Asia, the Philippines lags behind on the list of countries giving the same benefits to women. Vietnamese women are enjoying a paid maternity leave of up to six months. Bangladesh, Singapore and Mongolia give four months of paid maternity leave, and three months for Afghanistan, Indonesia, Cambodia, China, Laos and Thailand. There have already been bills pending in Philippine Congress that aim to double the length of the current mandated maternity leave. Pending in the House of Representatives since May last year is House Bill 6128 by Representatives Diosdado Arroyo and Gloria Arroyo that seeks to increase maternity leave benefits from 60 days to 120 days. The Senate version of the bill (SB 322) was filed by Senator Antonio Trillanes in 2010. But the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) is not pleased with these bills and is bent to block every opportunity of their passage. Sergio Ortiz-Luis, Jr., ECOP’s honorary chairman, said reduction in the number of working days through additional leave benefits would lead to further deterioration of labor productivity and competitiveness and would translate to increased cost of doing business. Moreover, he said the move is discriminatory to women, giving them lesser employment opportunities. "As an employer, I have a lot of choices as there are a lot of people looking for jobs. Why would I hire women then?" "This is not victory to women. It's suicide," said Ortiz-Luis. He also said that a democratic Philippines cannot be compared with communist Vietnam, which is, so far, the only Asian country offering six months of paid maternity leave. Other countries offering at least six months of maternity leave benefits are mostly European economies, which are incomparable too with the Philippines given the realities of the labor market. Win-win solution ILO said it will continue to negotiate with all stakeholders, particularly the government and the private sector, in a bid to come up with a win-win solution. ILO’s Cruz said there are negative effects on work or work performance of women who don’t enjoy enough paid maternity leave. Some of these are loss of motivation, difficulty concentrating, increased absenteeism/poor timekeeping, reduced productivity, impaired working relationships, and wanting or needing to leave the job. With these effects on work performance, effects on the business would be just as daunting as well – loss of productivity, difficulty retaining staff, increased costs, poor industrial relations, customer/client complaints if services/products/quality are affected, and poor company image. "We must make employers understand that there are a lot of long-term benefits for them if they give women employees the benefit of being able to take care of their babies better and longer," said ILO’s Cruz. Women-friendly workplaces Apart from pushing for longer maternity leave, there have also been significant efforts in making workplaces friendly to mothers. There is now a law (Republic Act 10028 or the Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009) that includes provisions for the establishment of lactation stations in public and private institutions. A program through the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Achievement Fund has also made it possible for the establishment of lactation stations in public markets for women vendors. Three have been three, so far – in Naga, Iloilo and Zamboanga cities. The sites were identified based on the poverty levels, prevalence and magnitude of undernutrition among young children. According to ILO, breastfeeding is important not only to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health. It is relevant to all eight of the MDGs: MDG 1 (Eradicate extreme poverty and halve hunger) – Breastfeeding is a low cost, high quality, safe food, which is vital for infant and child nutrition. MDG 2 (Universal primary education) – Malnutrition impairs school performance; breastfeeding and appropriate complementary feeding contribute to optimal neurological and cognitive development. MDG 3 (Gender equality) – Breastfeeding enables an equal start for children regardless of family income, and enables mothers to be self-sufficient in nourishing their infants without expending economic resources on expensive and inferior breast milk substitutes. MDG 4 (Reduce child mortality) – Maternal and child undernutrition contributes to 35 percent of under five deaths. MDG 5 (Maternal health) – Early initiation of breastfeeding reduces postpartum hemorrhage and protects mothers from anemia and maternal depletion through lactational amenorrhoea. MDG 6 (Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases) – The state of nutrition is correlated to the susceptibility to and impact of infection. MDG 7 (Ensure environmental sustainability) – Breastfeeding is a sustainable, locally available feeding option without waste, packaging or fuel use. MDG 8 (Global partnerships for development) – The Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding framework, for example, offers an opportunity to develop global partnerships for development. — BM/HS, GMA News The author is a senior correspondent of GMA Network and contributes features on children, women, education, health, and the environment to GMA News Online.