UK mothers who breastfeed their children, are celebrating after the government clarified today that mothers are, and always have been, free to breastfeed in public places. Breastfeeding mothers are also protected in law under the provision of goods, services and facilities section of the Sexual Discrimination Act when breastfeeding, whatever the age of the baby, in places such as cafes, restaurants, libraries, surgeries etc.
When Harriet Harman announced plans for the new Equality Bill three weeks ago, she could not have known that people around the country – and around the world – would respond so strongly to her proposal to include the word ‘breastfeeding’ in the definition of maternity.
Under the new proposals, the government was stating that a mother, breastfeeding a child of six months or less, would now be more rigorously protected by law from discrimination. It was this six month cut off point that started panic amongst breastfeeding mothers who, in accord with WHO and Government Health guidelines, seek to breastfeed well beyond six months. They were concerned that they could now be discriminated against, for feeding a child older than six months when in public.
As Barbara Follett, Deputy Minister for Women and Equality, stated: “The law is not as clear as it could be. People are unsure of their rights and their responsibilities in this area. Some people also think that women can be charged with indecency for breastfeeding in a public place. This is utter nonsense and completely wrong”.
Barry Durdant-Hollamby, a communications specialist for The Art of Change, became concerned that mixed messages were being given out to the public, when he was alerted to a newspaper story suggesting that it was an offence to breastfeed in public. ‘I found it hard to believe that there could be a law suggesting that breastfeeding in public was an offence. And yet there was this story suggesting it was. And then I thought of all the young, vulnerable mothers – and of all the service providers such as the managers of food chains – reading that same article and acting according to what they had read in the article. I had to get to the bottom of it. It has been a challenge, but I feel we can spread some positive light on all this now.’
As a result of Durdant-Hollamby’s investigations, the Government Equalities Office has confirmed that:
1) There is not, and never has been, any law that prohibits a woman from breastfeeding a child of any age in public, for example in a cafe.
2) The 1975 Sexual Discrimination Act created legal protection for a woman under the provision of goods, facilities and services section. This protection covered a woman breastfeeding a child, of any age, by implication, and meant that she could not be discriminated against for breastfeeding in places such as restaurants, cafes, surgeries, libraries etc.
3) The 2008 amendment to the SDA brought in more specific cover under the wording of ‘maternity’ – this also brought in the first mention of a six-month period, as it is tied to broader maternity rights covering 6 months before and after birth – whereby a mother could also challenge the owner under the grounds of maternity
4) The Equality Bill seeks to make it even more explicit that this maternity protection includes breastfeeding, by including the word breastfeeding in the statute.
So, for example, if a mother who is breastfeeding a 27-week old baby on a bus or in a café is asked to leave or to stop breastfeeding, she can take legal action on the grounds of sexual discrimination. If that same mother was feeding a child under 26 weeks, she could take action on the grounds of maternity or sexual discrimination.
Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action, said: “We, and our colleagues in the Baby Feeding Law Group, are pleased to see the Government making it clear that women are free to breastfeed in public and stating that these women are already protected under the Sexual Discrimination Act. During the consultation phase for the Single Equality Bill, we have also asked for there to be no age limit specified on the additional protection (provided under ‘maternity’) for breastfeeding in public. In many countries I visit, mothers do not give a thought to breastfeeding wherever they may be, which is quick and convenient and nobody sees it at odd.”
Only this week, the need for clarity was demonstrated when the junior manager of a McDonald’s asked a breastfeeding woman to leave the premises. Fortunately, Head Office understood the law and offered an apology to the woman involved. It is this type of confusion that Durdant-Hollamby was determined to lift.
Deputy Minister for Women Barbara Follett concluded: “Mothers have to be confident that they can breastfeed their infants in a café, restaurant or shop without the embarrassment of having the owner ask them to stop. This type of discrimination has in fact been unlawful for more than thirty years, and the mother – with a baby of any age – could challenge the owner under the Sex Discrimination Act.”