Equal Opportunity Amendment - Breastfeeding
Date:Tuesday, March 23, 2010
HON ALISON XAMON (East Metropolitan) [9.36 pm]: I am delighted to stand here today in support of this bill on behalf of the Greens (WA). The purpose of the bill is to finally incorporate a section on breastfeeding into the Equal Opportunity Act. I thank the Leader of the Opposition in this house for introducing this bill. I will give a bit of history around the substance of this legislation. The Greens tried to introduce an almost identical bill more than 12 years ago. As a new member Hon Giz Watson gave notice of her intention to introduce very similar legislation, but at the time she was not supported. I am, therefore, very pleased that 12 years later there seems to be a significant change of heart on this issue.
I know the history of this because, at the time, I was a member of the Greens and a young mum breastfeeding my first child, my daughter. I was a member of a mothers group, and we were all breastfeeding our children. About this time two incidents happened within a short time of each other. One incident involved a woman on a bus who was breastfeeding her child and was asked to leave the bus. She was kicked off the bus with her baby. Not long after that a similar incident occurred on a train. My mothers group was outraged about this because we felt that any one of us could so easily have been that mother. I remember also how angry we were that those women and their babies had been left in the middle of nowhere. I want to say that, if I were on public transport and had a choice between dealing with a crying baby or simply feeding my baby, I would feed my baby any day. But apparently this was not considered acceptable in those instances and those women were kicked off public transport. As a result, I approached Hon Giz Watson, who obviously I knew at the time, and said, “We’ve got to do something about this; it’s absolutely outrageous.” Of course, she tried her best. It was immensely disappointing for me and the mothers I was working with that the legislation did not proceed. Eleven years later, once I found out that I had been successfully elected—something I could not have foreseen at the time I originally approached Hon Giz Watson about the legislation—I was determined that I was going to give it another go and introduce the bill again. Then, as luck would have it—this is the issue with having such a long lead-in time between members getting elected and taking their seats—only about six weeks before I took my seat there was another incident of a young mother being asked to leave a premises, in this case the Hyatt Regency hotel, for breastfeeding her child. At the time that happened, I started getting phone calls from people from my old breastfeeding networks. In the original act of putting the bill together 12 years ago, I liaised with all sorts of people and all sorts of networks. I actually got on the phone to the Equal Opportunity Commission to discuss the matter and to let it know that I was keen to put forward a private members’ bill; I never heard back, but next thing I knew, Hon Michelle Roberts put the bill forward in the Legislative Assembly, so we are today discussing the same bill that we tried to introduce 12 years ago. I have to say that there is some degree of personal disappointment about this, because this is an issue that I campaigned on for many years, and I missed out on the opportunity to introduce this bill by only a matter of weeks.
I concur with the Minister for Women’s Interests’ earlier comment that this bill could have been introduced quite some time ago, but it was not. In fact, I had even gone so far as to speak to the Clerk of the Legislative Council, prior to taking my seat, to discuss how I would go about introducing this as a private members’ bill. However, we are finally debating and, I anticipate, about to pass this legislation, which is hideously overdue. I am also aware that, despite the fact that it is overdue, this legislation almost did not make it this far. I am very disappointed not only that the government refused to introduce this legislation but also that the Attorney General early in the debate said that the government would not support the bill because he claimed that it was unnecessary as a point of law. I have to say that that was really not the best thought-out response; mothers who had been left in the lurch for breastfeeding their children felt that it was a real slap in the face. Certainly, for those mothers who have experienced and continue to experience discrimination for breastfeeding their babies, that is of very little comfort because it is a pretty raw deal. I am extremely thankful that the government has back-flipped and decided to support the bill, because far from being unnecessary, this bill is actually extremely important and necessary. Breastfeeding mothers and their children have waited long enough.
The reason the Attorney General gave for initially not supporting this legislation was that women are already protected under existing provisions. I am aware that this is perhaps the case as a legal argument, but I have some difficulties with that approach and argument. My primary concern is that we really do not know for sure that women are already protected, as acknowledged by the Equal Opportunity Commission in 2007, when it undertook its review of the act. If a woman were to lodge a complaint of breastfeeding discrimination under the act as it currently stands, the report states that —
…the only relevant ground would be that of sex or, more precisely, a characteristic that appertains generally to persons of the same sex as the complainant.
As was noted by Hon Sue Ellery, the report continues —
It is arguable whether breastfeeding is such a characteristic, at least in terms of the standard of proof required under the Act. Consequently, it would be for the State Administrative Tribunal to determine the answer.
My response is: why on earth would we want a woman to have to go through an arduous process such as a drawn-out test case, with the subsequent expense and humiliation, and no guarantee of success, just to find out for sure whether she is actually protected by law? In its report, the Equal Opportunity Commission quite rightly recommended that amendments be made to include a new ground of breastfeeding to make sure that the question be put beyond doubt. There is absolutely no doubt that breastfeeding mothers should be protected. In addition to making it very clear where we stand legally in relation to breastfeeding, the inclusion of such a provision would send a powerful message to the community. That message is that breastfeeding is an act that we value, it is important, and it is socially acceptable. That is a very powerful symbolic statement. In making a statement such as that, we are going one step further than merely putting a legal argument. We are saying something about what we value, we are saying something about what is acceptable, and we are saying something about how we want women to be protected.
So, finally, we are here today and we have the opportunity to debate this amendment bill. As I have said, I was a breastfeeding mother. I breastfed all three of my children. In fact, my youngest child weaned himself only a few years ago, so the breastfeeding experience is still quite fresh in my mind. My children have benefited from being able to be fed whenever they were hungry, regardless of whether I was at home, at work or at uni; or at meetings in the eastern states, which I have to say I went to quite a lot of. I also breastfed on the plane when I was flying across the country. I must say how advantageous I found that to be. It is very good for babies to be breastfed on a plane, because it really does help their little ears. I also found that not having to fuss with bottles and all the associated paraphernalia was a really important tool in my ability to keep up with what has been for a very long time a very hectic pace.
I should add also that I am one of those mothers who rarely used a pram. All my babies were what is known as “sling babies”, meaning that they were pretty much always close to me, and they fed whenever they needed to. As a result, I have pretty happy and contented kids. That was really important for me. I have led a very full public life. My capacity to breastfeed in the way that I have has meant that I have been able to keep up with a very hectic pace of work and study and activism. I have to say also, frankly, particularly considering the age of my children, that doing that almighty juggle and being able to breastfeed in the way that I did has been a key tool in enabling me to end up in Parliament.
I think that I had a real advantage over a lot of other mothers. Early in my first pregnancy, I was doing pregnancy yoga, and I was introduced to an amazing and inspirational couple by the name of Sam and Sydel Weinstein. I want to acknowledge them here. These two people have taught the benefits of breastfeeding and have provided practical support to literally thousands of Western Australian women over the years. I owe those two a great debt. I did not know much about breastfeeding at all when I had my first child, but they taught me and gave me the courage to stand up to those bullies who tried to make me feel lesser in myself for breastfeeding. I acknowledge that it was also helpful that that was coupled with the fact that I am a fairly assertive type of person. But not all women are like me, and not many women would receive the sort of intensive support that I received from Sam and Sydel. I do know that if anyone had tried to kick me off a bus or out of a café, they would have had one hell of a protest on their hands. But the point is that no woman should have to protest in the first place. That is the point of this legislation.
People keep talking about the need to be discreet. I was discreet. I carried my child in a sling. It was really good. I could put the sling and the baby right up to the breast. But that was when I could be discreet. I was not trying to attract attention or to make some sort of point. I think most women really are not trying to do that. But babies do not necessarily understand that. I think that we need to be careful in using the argument about discretion, because inadvertently we may buy into a mindset that the sight of babies feeding in the way that nature intended is somehow obscene. Give me a break! It is not, and those people who think that it is need to reconsider their views.
I would like to quote from an article by Dot Newbold, a breastfeeding counsellor, who writes —
Our babies are the most vulnerable members of our society. They are totally dependent on us for their survival. Biologically, they need frequent feeding because their stomachs are small and breastmilk is so efficiently absorbed. Hungry babies shouldn’t be expected to wait. They have the right to be offered the breast whenever they need a feed.
It really is as simple and as straightforward as that. We know the benefits of breastfeeding to both mothers and children; they have been well researched and are well known. Nevertheless it is still worth, for the record, mentioning some of them here. According to the Australian Breastfeeding Association the many positive effects of breastfeeding include protective effects against diarrhoea and respiratory infections, as well as benefits to children’s growth and cognitive development and immunological function. Other studies have shown a protective effect against sudden infant death syndrome, asthma and other allergic diseases. Some benefits persist into childhood and adulthood. Sustained breastfeeding decreases the risk of respiratory disease, gastroenteritis, middle ear infections and obesity in children. In addition, adults who are breastfed as babies often have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels, as well as lower rates of being overweight or obese or developing type 2 diabetes. The benefits for mothers also include reduced risks of breast and ovarian cancer and faster return to pre-pregnancy weight. I can certainly vouch for that one. My kids sucked the pregnancy weight right out of me—pretty quickly actually!
In public health terms, the long-term public health outcomes of breastfeeding mean there is a reduced burden of disease and resultant economic, environmental and social benefits to the community. Breastfeeding is better for mums, children, the economy and it is better for the environment. As a result of all these great things about breastfeeding, the World Health Organization strongly recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding, along with appropriate complementary foods, up to two years of age or beyond. This message has been largely accepted in Australia, where the vast majority of pregnant women report that they want to breastfeed their children. Around 85 per cent of women start breastfeeding in hospital. WA has traditionally led the pack when it comes to breastfeeding initiation rates. WA does quite well; however, like the other states, there is a huge drop-off once women leave hospital. Less than half of these women will still be breastfeeding when their babies are six months old, and less than one per cent are still breastfeeding at two years, despite the recommendations of the World Health Organization. We have to ask what is going wrong.
The reasons women choose not to start breastfeeding or to wean their babies early are quite complex. I would, firstly, like to acknowledge that for many women breastfeeding is not very easy. It might be the best thing for the baby and the most natural thing in the world, but for a range of reasons it can be exhausting, it can hurt, and it can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable. It is really hard at first for a lot of women—I was one of them— and also, when babies start teething, they bite. But women should be supported in their efforts to breastfeed. I want to be very clear: by no means should my words be twisted to suggest that I have a problem with women who, for whatever reason, choose to bottle-feed rather than breastfeed. I recognise that as a society we are completely hypocritical in how we respond to breastfeeding mothers. On the one hand, we tell women that they are bad mums if they bottle-feed, but on the other hand, we treat women like they are doing something wrong if they do breastfeed. I am not surprised that a lot of women choose not to breastfeed. And I understand why, for a lot of women, breastfeeding just does not feel like the best option for them, or even an option that is open to them.
We know that women face many social barriers breastfeeding. A major barrier that many of us who have breastfed our children have experienced is that of public attitudes. The wider public can at times be unreceptive or even downright negative to breastfeeding. A recent survey commissioned by the Australian Lactation Consultants Association found that despite 65 per cent of people saying that they believed breastfed babies had a better chance of surviving beyond one year of age, only 29 per cent strongly agreed that women should be encouraged to do so in public. I am really disappointed with that, but I understand from people who work in this field that apparently these survey results are not at all surprising to them. Further results include that up to 36 per cent of people surveyed thought that breastfeeding was acceptable in a cafe or at work. Apparently, young adults, particularly those aged between 18 and 24 years, were the least supportive of public breastfeeding. They should wait until they have kids and see how excited they feel at the prospect of having to disappear from public life and from public participation.
Our society has changed so much over the past 50 years. We have lost the days when large families and close, extended families were more common, when children watched their mothers breastfeed their younger siblings, or their aunts or their older sisters breastfeed. Basically, the art of breastfeeding, which in the past was taught by observation and shared experience, is much less visible in the community. Many people have far less to do with the care of babies and small children until they have their own. Young people may rarely, if ever, have actually even seen a baby breastfeeding. Of course, they might feel uncomfortable with the unknown, but nonetheless I think it is incredibly sad that young adults could find it shocking and embarrassing to be confronted with breastfeeding when it is not only natural but also important.
Negative attitudes to public breastfeeding are commonly raised whenever the issue arises in the public domain. We have heard an extraordinary amount of feedback on websites and talkback radio. How people can equate breastfeeding a baby with sexualised images of women’s breasts just astounds me, and I am actually appalled by it. As I said in my inaugural speech, I really wonder at the perversity of the mind that equates breastfeeding with a sexual act. We have just been debating the issue of child pornography, and we all share abhorrence at the idea that anyone can view children as sexualised. The same applies to our babies being fed. We need to speak out against this view that breasts are naturally sex objects first, because they are not—their primary purpose is to feed. As far as I am concerned, it is completely unacceptable for a woman to be made to feel uncomfortable because she chooses to feed her baby, because of narrow-minded and really quite sad attitudes. Women who breastfeed are doing the best thing possible for their babies. They should not be expected to separate themselves from their friends or their families whenever their baby wants a feed when they are out. They should not be expected to stop functioning as full members of society. This is a democracy, and I am not going to be told that for the years I breastfed my baby I forfeited the right as a member of society to be in public with my baby. As we have seen in the press, this is clearly a topic on which many people seem to have something to say.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people who do comment on this issue in the public arena stand up to voice their unequivocal support for breastfeeding mothers. Indeed, it seems that many people have been incredulous that this legislation is even needed, and horrified that we live in a society where breastfeeding mothers still suffer discrimination. The number of people who felt compelled to share their positive personal stories on talkback radio, and in particular in the letters pages, was really touching. We heard really positive stories of strangers coming up to congratulate women, standing up for them or otherwise providing support for them when they were breastfeeding in public. But I have to say, that despite these warm and fuzzy stories, negative public attitudes, even though they are held, in my view, by only a minority of people, remain a significant barrier to breastfeeding. There are also other significant barriers to breastfeeding women. Other barriers that women face include a lack of general support mechanisms available broadly. Again, the World Health Organization notes that successful breastfeeding requires accurate information and support of families, the healthcare system and society at large. I do not think we have got that level of support in Western Australia yet and, therefore, there are really important roles for all of us to play in the shift to become a more supportive society. There are roles for government but also for businesses, employers and other organisations, as well as families and individuals. This legislation is a good start.
What other things can be done? Adequate paid maternity leave will always have a central role, as would the creation of breastfeeding-friendly workplaces and shopping centres, restaurants, cafes and other public places. We need to ensure that women are provided with accurate and up-to-date breastfeeding information and support. There must be a range of initiatives to support women who wish to breastfeed, including education campaigns— particularly targeted at young people, according to information provided to me—that promote the benefits and increase public acceptance of breastfeeding. On a federal level, work must be done to limit food industry promotion and marketing that undermines breastfeeding.
Women want to do what is best for them and their children, and we should be helping them. Katherine Dettwyler, an American breastfeeding advocate, has made valuable remarks about how, as a society, we should be teaching our children that breastfeeding is a normal and natural thing to do. She stated —
We can teach our daughters to value their bodies, to have confidence in their bodies, and to not be ashamed of using their bodies as they were designed. We can make sure that children have many opportunities to see women breastfeeding, in many different contexts. We can answer our children’s questions about breasts and breastfeeding in a forthright, practical, straightforward manner.
I am turning my mind to the ways in which we can address some of the negative attitudes towards breastfeeding. I understand that a pilot program is running across the school curriculum in Queensland to introduce education about breastfeeding and its benefits. This is an important start to normalising breastfeeding, which after all is a very normal act. It is a very positive initiative and I hope it is successful, and, if it is successful, that it will be rolled out to schools across the country. Again, this legislation is also a really important part of the shift to normalise breastfeeding. I was particularly pleased to hear the supportive comments and personal stories that were shared by members in the other place, and also here, about their or their loved ones’ experiences around breastfeeding their children. I think that these stories highlight that being a parent is already not particularly easy.
We also need to be valuing and supporting the role of women when and if they choose to be mothers, including initiatives that support breastfeeding by working mothers and also ensuring that breastfeeding is compatible with a modern workplace. We can do this by ensuring that extra support is provided to working mothers who are breastfeeding. I notice that the Australian Breastfeeding Association does have a breastfeeding-friendly workplace accreditation program, which was referred to yesterday as well by the Minister for Child Protection. This supports the 118 000 or so Australian women who return to paid work when their child is aged six months or younger. I think more work needs to be done in this area to ensure that all workplaces are accredited, either through this program or a similar program. I also hope that all members seek to have their offices accredited as well, because workplace support is clearly crucial in enabling these women who choose to keep breastfeeding to be able to do so. Again, this law change helps to strengthen that position.
Many groups and individuals are doing some fantastic work out there to support breastfeeding mothers. I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the work that is being done by organisations such as the Family Nurturing Centre and the Australian Breastfeeding Association in supporting and promoting breastfeeding and breastfeeding mothers. A staggering number of women and children out there have benefited both directly and indirectly from their tireless campaigns and their support. I think this bill is a culmination of the sort of work that they have done over so many years.
When I was thinking about attitudes to breastfeeding in Western Australia, I also came across some web postings by breastfeeding mums. One mother noted that she had seen one of the characters on Home and Away breastfeeding her baby in a recent episode. The response by another woman to this comment was that she had seen the episode but she had not even noticed that the character was breastfeeding. According to my notes, she went on to say —
I guess I am probably a little desensitised to it now as I can carry on entire conversations with a breastfeeding mother and not realise she is feeding until she starts snapping her bra back up.
I find this sort of comment incredibly heartening. That is exactly how it should be in our society and that is where I hope we are going. I am looking forward to the day when people will not even bat an eyelid when they see a woman breastfeeding in public and when it is so acceptable that it is not even worth mentioning. But, unfortunately, I do know that we still have quite a way to go. Although not necessarily widespread, discrimination is definitely alive and well. For each case that comes to the media’s attention in which a woman has been brave enough to make a public complaint or to go to the media when she has been discriminated against for breastfeeding in public, we know that there are so many more cases that we do not ever get to hear about because when a woman is asked to leave or cover up when she is breastfeeding, it is a distressing and humiliating experience. Often, all that the woman feels she is able to do at that point is just withdraw from the situation in embarrassment. We have a responsibility to make sure that we are protecting people from being discriminated against in this manner. If a woman wants to feed her baby in public, she should be able to; it is as simple as that. When I hear stories about women who are forced to feed their babies in public toilets I despair; it is disgusting. Even sadder is when breastfeeding women are told that they are not able to participate fully within the public arena as public citizens or employees simply because they are ensuring that their babies are getting fed. This is unacceptable, and making breastfeeding a clear, unequivocal provision in the Equal Opportunity Act sends a powerful message to mums that breastfeeding their babies is acceptable and is to be encouraged, protected and supported, because mothers of children are valued public citizens. This is about explicitly telling people that if they discriminate against breastfeeding mothers, they are breaking the law and could face legal action.
The breastfeeding relationship between a mother and child is an incredibly special and important one and it does deserve protection from that small-minded minority who make life so miserable for women and their babies by engaging in unacceptable, discriminatory conduct towards mums, because studies have shown that one of the many reasons that women choose to stop breastfeeding prematurely is due to that sense of discomfort and disapproval they feel when they are trying to feed their babies in public. When we protect breastfeeding by law, which has been done in other Australian states and also countries around the world and is not something particularly new, it sends a powerful message to the public that we are valuing and protecting a breastfeeding relationship.
The Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill 2009 has been a long time coming. In the past, Western Australia has been a leader in implementing equal opportunity legislation, but until now, compared with the other states, we have been left behind on this issue. The protections that the Equal Opportunity Act affords are absolutely necessary, as is this legislation to amend the act. I have had many discussions with members, and I am aware that some question the need for such an act. I can assure them that, unfortunately, the sorts of protections that the Equal Opportunity Act affords are all too necessary. I certainly hope that one day the Equal Opportunity Act will become redundant, but unfortunately we are not there yet. I eagerly await the day when discrimination becomes a thing of the past. However, until then, if the right to breastfeed in public is an acknowledged right, let us make it clear and leave no room for doubt.
Finally, if people are affronted by a woman breastfeeding her child, maybe they should think about putting a blanket over their heads rather than asking breastfeeding women to do that. The Greens (WA) are delighted to support this bill.