State institutions and partner organisations held joint consultations on the possibility of increasing maternity leave for working mothers in order to raise the rate of exclusive breastfeeding.

After discovering that the rate of breastfeeding has dropped significantly in recent years due to mothers returning to work, the government has set the goal of achieving 85 per cent exclusive breastfeeding for children up to six months of age by 2030.

The consultative workshop, “Improving Infant and Young Child Feeding and Maternity Leave for Working Women in Cambodia”, was held on January 31.

Hou Kroeun, country director of Helen Keller International, said representatives from 14 relevant institutions – ministries, partner NGOs, the private sector, the UN, World Health Organisation (WHO), universities, media networks and the National Assembly – were in attendance.

“We discussed the possibility of extending the current maternity leave period of three months to four, five or six months. The sharp drop in breastfeeding is a worrying trend and needs to be addressed,” he said.

“According to studies by economists, if Cambodian children were breastfeed exclusively until the age of six months, it would lead to $330 million in economic gains each year. This would more than compensate for the cost of the increased leave,” he added.

Prak Sophoan Neary, secretary of state at the Ministry of Health, expressed her full support for an increase in maternity leave. Limited leave has placed women and babies at a disadvantage, as breastfeeding to the age of six months – in line with health ministry and WHO outlines – is difficult for many working mothers.

“A lack of breastfeeding can seriously affect the brain and cognitive development of children. Infants who were not fully breastfed had a smaller brain size than those who were, and the intelligence quotient, or IQ, of infants who were not fully breastfed were on average 2.6 per cent lower,” she noted.

“The use of breast-milk substitutes [BMS] including formula can put children at greater risk of diarrhea, lung disease, asthma, poor IQ, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease and obesity. An increase in maternity leave could prevent many such cases,” she said.

The rate of exclusive breastfeeding for children aged 0-5 months had decreased significantly, from 74 per cent in 2010 to 65 per cent in 2014 but dropped to just 51 per cent in 2021-2022. This drop has been partially attributed to the increased use of BMS, as well as mothers returning to work.

Preliminary baseline results of a survey conducted between February and March 2022 among 308 women employees with children younger than 12 months of age found that the short duration of maternity leave may be one of the main factors contributing to motivating working mothers to stop breastfeeding.

The survey is part of the Workplace and Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) Support Project, implemented by Helen Keller International and funded by German development agency GIZ under its Multisectoral Food and Nutrition Security (MUSEFO) programme.

Almost half, or 49 per cent, of the women surveyed said that the reason they stopped breastfeeding was due to returning to work after maternity leave.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that as many as 93 per cent of workers in Cambodia are informal workers. Under articles 182 and 183 of the Cambodian labour law, women are entitled to a maternity leave period of 90 days (12.9 weeks) at half of their wage, paid by the employer. These benefits are granted only to women with a minimum of one year uninterrupted service.

These conditions do not meet the minimum 14 weeks of maternity leave or minimum pay of two-thirds which are currently recommended in the ILO’s Maternity Protection Convention.

Many other countries in the region have increased or amended maternity leave legislation in recent years. In Vietnam, the length of maternity leave has been increased from 16 to 26 weeks. As a result, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding has significantly increased from 22 to 45.4 per cent.

After discussions are complete, the attendees will compile a suggested policy and submit it to the government for review.