Keeping mum

baby in the office Ghana

“What do you mean I’m a distraction?”

If there’s one thing that you can’t avoid in Ghana, it’s contact with babies. Mothers think nothing of putting their baby on your lap on the bus if they have a bag or box on their own, and on venturing out for breakfast or lunch it is not at all unusual to find that you are expected to hold the child of the person that you have asked to make it. Even the average person walking down the street may find that they are unexpectedly handed a baby out of the window of a trotro (local bus).

baby in the office Ghana

“I’m just minding my own business while mum works…”

But the place in Ghana where I found the presence of babies most surprising was indubitably the office. There are 15 full time employees and 3 full time babies at RAINS. We share our office with 8-month-old Wunnam, who is possibly the closest I have ever come to a Disney character in real life (my trip to EuroDisney excepted). He is a bundle of cuteness – big eyes, big smile, big personality.But for somebody who is used to working in a UK office, it can come as quite a surprise to be given a baby when his mother is going to a meeting, to have to go and pick him up when he wakes up when his mum is not around, or to find him charging up to your desk in his plastic car, which is all the while playing a high-pitched version of ‘Old MacDonald.’

baby in the office Ghana

“It’s not my fault if everyone wants to play with me…”

The phenomenon of babies in the office is an upshot of the fact that in Ghana, the minimum maternity leave to which employees are entitled is only 12 weeks (in addition to annual leave accrued). Given that at this stage of a child’s development, nearly all mothers will still be breastfeeding, it is in most cases necessary for them to bring the baby to the office with them. Nursing mothers are entitled to interrupt their work for an hour during working hours to breastfeed their babies. This time is treated as part of their working hours and paid accordingly.

baby in the office Ghana

“…although it is good fun…”

It would be interesting to assess the impact of Ghana’s maternity leave entitlements with those of the UK, where eligible employees can take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, and receive statutory maternity pay for up to 39 weeks. Does a shorter period of maternity leave lead to greater productivity in the office because the mother is away from her desk for less time, or lower productivity because she and all the colleagues around her are distracted by the baby? Are mothers more likely to return from a longer period of maternity leave, by which point they may find it harder to readjust to life in the office, or a shorter period, when they may still be adjusting to life as a mother and embarrassed about breastfeeding in front of their colleagues?

Certainly, the evidence suggests that longer paid maternity leave is associated with a wide range of benefits for mothers and their babies. Returning to work within the first 12 weeks of a baby’s life is associated with lower cognitive development scores for the baby and a greater number of depressive symptoms for the mother, while the availability of one year’s paid maternity leave is associated with a 20% decline in post-neo-natal deaths and a 15% decrease in fatalities occuring before the child reaches five years old.

Given that infant mortality rates remain high in Ghana, perhaps there is a need to extend the length of statutory maternity leave in the country.

Simply the breast!

by Tolu

Breastfeeding GhanaSince arriving in Ghana, the sight of breasts has been everywhere! While I pride myself on being an advocate for a woman having the right to feed her baby (my health and human rights professor will be proud), I do have to honestly say that it being so openly done has taken some getting used to. On the public bus to Paga last weekend, the woman next to me calmly whipped out her breasts to feed her twins at the same time. It was apparent from the reaction, or non-reaction, of the Ghanaians on the bus that this act was clearly as normal as drinking a bottle of water.

The act of breastfeeding is a natural act; a mother’s body produces milk filled with nutrients essential for the baby’s health and development – especially within the first six month of life. However, this simple and natural act has not come without controversy. In western countries like the UK and the US, public breastfeeding is generally not accepted – mothers have even been asked to leave planes and restaurants for breastfeeding. This has resulted in the birth of campaign groups and social movements advocating for the right to breastfeed in public, turning this natural act into a political issue. ‘Lactivists‘ have organised sit-ins to protest their right to breast feed in public

The complete opposite attitude exists in Ghana, which not only shows a cultural acceptance but also indicates progress in Ghana meeting the Millennium Development Goal associated with infant mortality and maternal health. With some of the benefits of breastfeeding being improved neurological development, reduced risks of common childhood illnesses and an increased bond between mother and child, health organisations such as WHO and UNICEF argue that breast is best.

In developing countries, it also shows a turnaround from the use of infant formula that was aggressively marketed years ago. In addition to infant formula not having the nutrients and antibodies contained in breast milk, it has also been shown to make children more susceptible to disease and preventable death. This is most prevalent in situations where clean water is not always available, meaning mothers mix the formula powder with contaminated water, causing a high number of deaths from illnesses such as diarrhoea.

In Ghana, significant progress has been made to turn nursing mothers back to breast milk. With over 60% exclusively feeding breast milk to their babies under 6 months of age, Ghana has one of the best figures in Sub Saharan Africa.

Therefore the next time I feel astounded at the sight of women whipping out their breasts to feed children in public, I will make a conscious effort to remember that this is a sign of greater development.