8 December 2018.
Dhaka – Malnutrition in children, adolescents and women is a major concern in Bangladesh. Data from the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) show that despite progress, levels of malnutrition in the country remain some of the highest in the world, and a major cause of death and disease among children and women.
According to the UN agency, the economic consequences of Bangladesh’s malnutrition problem are profound, resulting in lost productivity and reduced intellectual and learning capacity.
At the root of the problem is a lack of comprehensive, countrywide policies to safeguard the health of pregnant women and mothers, who either breastfeed or give expressed milk to their babies.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants should be exclusively breastfed within the first hour of birth and for the first six months of life. Additional breastfeeding and complimentary feeding should continue until two years of age.
Yet, the 2014 Bangladesh Demographic Health Survey shows only one in two infants aged 0-5 months are breastfed in this way.
The country’s branch of Better Work—a joint programme of the UN’s International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation, a member World Bank Group—took up the challenge of bolstering attention to maternity protection issues across the country’s female-dominated garment sector, and looks to tackle widespread malnutrition.
Under a project dubbed “Healthy Mother Healthy Child,” Better Work Bangladesh (BWB) Enterprise Advisors use their regular factory visits to call on management to distribute food among pregnant workers and mothers who breastfeed in the workplace, as well as provide time and space to do so.
Based on the premise that pregnant women and mothers who breastfeed need special protection in a factory, the UN programme unfolded an action plan in July spanning policies and procedures that plants should follow to guarantee the health of workers and their babies. Eventually, these measures should contribute to lower maternal and infant mortality rates across the country.
The project emphasizes nutritional needs, maternity protection and childcare assistance. It also organises trainings for the factory clinic’s staff, welfare officers, managers, line supervisors and childcare specialists.
Four months into the project, 11 BWB-affiliated factories—making up a roughly 40,000-person workforce—started to provide some 300 pregnant women and about 200 breastfeeding mothers with energy-boosting food like bananas, milk, eggs, biscuits and cake.
Machine operator Mina Parveen has been working in one of Better Work Bangladesh’s partner textile plants for the last four years. She gave birth to her baby, Modhumita Mim, almost a year ago.
In early October, Parveen relayed the results of the Better Work advocacy project in her factory to Enterprise Advisor Ishrat Jahan.
The worker said the management facilitated regular medical check-ups during her pregnancy, which included psychological sessions focusing on ways to overcome possible hardships and stress. Parveen explained that some of the advice she received touched on the crucial supporting role a husband plays before and after childbirth.
Parveen’s baby spends the day in the factory’s crèche. Her mother comes to visit during breaks and benefits from the additional time she gets to spend with her child at the nursery. The factory provides mothers two 30-minute pauses for breastfeeding, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.
Toddlers in the nursery also receive milk and other suitable food to fend off any malnutrition risks.
Parveen says that while her baby looks healthier and happier since she started consuming better quality and more nutritious food, she also feels stronger and more energetic herself. Like other mothers in the factory, she now takes far fewer leave days, and her sense of trust towards factory management has started to grow.
In August, Better Work and the UNICEF launched the Mothers@Work joint project, a national initiative to support maternity rights and promote breastfeeding across the country’s garment sector. Drawing on the combined expertise of UNICEF and the ILO/IFC programme, the initiative will help protect the wellbeing of mothers and ensure that their children receive the early nutrition they deserve.
Initially piloted in one of Better Work’s affiliated ready-made garment companies, DBL, Mothers@Work will be rolled out in 25 of the 130 factories in which the programme works by the end of 2018.
Numbers from the Project as of November 2017:
Total number of workers: 39,642
Total number of female workers: 20,055
Number of pregnant women targeted so far in the project: 289
Number of lactating mothers targeted so far in the project: 181