Women have the legal right to breastfeed in public. Discrimination against breastfeeding mothers, particularly in the workplace, is against EU law. Nevertheless, stories of women being kicked out of cafes and other public places for breastfeeding persist. Likewise, laws protecting breastfeeding mothers are not necessarily applied uniformly across the European Union.
What do our readers think? In several EU countries, breastfeeding in public is still controversial and women may face harassment for it. Kicki blames this type of harassment on patriarchal attitudes in those countries. Is that right?
To get a response, we put Kicki’s comment to Amy Brown, Professor of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences at Swansea University. How would she respond?
I’d agree with her. There’s research that shows the more patriarchal a country is and the more someone holds views that are quite misogynistic or sexist towards women, the less they like the idea of women having the freedom to breastfeed in public.
If we think about breastfeeding babies, yes, it’s about feeding them, but I would say it’s also about women having rights and women having the power to feed their baby whenever they want, and that’s what some people will disagree with. They don’t like the fact that women are protected by law to do this, and they have an issue with that, rather than necessarily the breastfeeding.
What do legal protections for mothers breastfeeding in public or the workplace look like across Europe? Are they strong enough? What does Professor Amy Brown think?
I think in terms of the legal perspective, the protection is there. I mean, it’s illegal to discriminate against breastfeeding mothers – so it’s illegal to ask them to stop breastfeeding, it’s illegal to ask them to go and feed somewhere else, so you can’t tell them to go and feed in a toilet (because, after all, we wouldn’t eat our dinner in a toilet). The problem we have is that perhaps the law isn’t necessarily accepted or taken seriously, so people still seem to think they can criticise a mother without realising that they’re actually breaking a law; it’s not a recommendation, it’s not a suggestion, it is a law. But there is never really any follow-up for that, so if somebody does discriminate against a mother in public then it’s very unlikely to turn into some kind of court case. There’s no on-the-spot fine, for example, for criticising a breastfeeding mother like there would be for dropping litter or something like that.
I also think we need greater strength around it – so we need greater understanding about why the law is in place (because it’s important for us as a population – it’s not just about the mother) but also greater comeback if it’s broken. I mean, some women are told that they can’t breastfeed in the workplace, and then they have a case for discrimination against their employer, but for just simply breastfeeding in public, it doesn’t seem to be strong enough. It’s there, but it’s not carried through.
How do you feel about breastfeeding in public? Are strong enough measures in place to prevent the harassment of women breastfeeding in the workplace or in public? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!