Legal change protects women breastfeeding in the workplace

An addition to Hong Kong’s Sex Discrimination Ordinance addresses the mistreatment breastfeeding women have long suffered from in the workplace.

Photo: Phyllis breastfeeding by Thomas Widmann from Flickr Creative Commons. License. Image has been cropped for use.

A change to Hong Kong’s Sex Discrimination Ordinance passed in January will make it illegal to harass or discriminate against women for breastfeeding in the workplace. 

The amendement to the 1995 Sex Discrimination Ordinance makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex, pregnancy, marital status or issues related to sexual harassment. The ordinance protects people in relation to seven areas that include employment, education and government activities.

Women who are breastfeeding have long suffered from widespread discrimination and often harassment. 

Ms Puja Kapai, an associate professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), argues that workplaces punish women by permitting behaviour that perpetuates misogynistic attitudes toward breastfeeding.

“Women have been shamed, ridiculed, insulted, offended and often sexualised when found breastfeeding or expressing milk, or simply when they are known to be engaged in these activities,” she says.

The new amendment should protect women from this type of discrimination or harassment, Ms Kapai adds. But she suggests taking the ordinance a step further to cover men who face “discrimination, harassment and vilification” when partaking in caregiving functions, including the feeding of children.

Legal recognition of women’s right to breastfeed without suffering from such harassment or discrimination is “a step in the right direction,” says Ms Fiona Nott, CEO of The Women’s Foundation, which promotes the equal participation of women and men in all aspects of society. 

Nott says more action is necessary to ensure the protection and fair treatment of women in the workplace with a number of issues remaining to be addressed including  upskirting, sexual violence and harassment, including online abuse. 

“We hope this new measure to protect breastfeeding women is accompanied by comprehensive public education and initiatives among employers to raise awareness around this and all other types of harassment and discrimination, and promote best practice to curb this type of behaviour,” she says.

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the author

Jasmine Lee is writer, commentator, and journalist. She graduated from McGill University where she took numerous opportunities to study and work around the world. Her specific areas of interest include media studies and human rights.