I never stop being surprised by the things which happen in my day to day work at the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO) in Kathmandu, Nepal. Whether it’s being hauled up to deliver gender training (starts in 10 minutes, ok?), or having to swing into action to respond to yet another horrible case of sexual and gender-based violence against a Dalit woman in a far-flung district or just having a pleasant chat at 9 AM with colleagues on arranged marriages and quirky Nepali customs, there is (excuse the platitude, but really, there isn’t!) never a dull moment in this NGO.
I work with a number of young Dalit women – between 25-35 years of age – the first generation of educated, middle-class Dalit women, who have battled a mountain of discrimination to get where they are today.
I’m sitting at my desk, tapping away at a report I’ve been avoiding for days, when I see a young colleague of mine walking up the small spiral staircase, to the rooftop, where “Didi”, the live-in caretaker of FEDO office lives. Not long after, I see another young colleague disappear up there. Why are they in Didi’s house? Why do they disappear up there for around 10-15 minutes at least four times a day each? Is there an amazing staff room I haven’t heard about?
SO – it turns out that the young mums of FEDO have tiny wee babies around the 3-5 month mark, who they bring to work! And the babies sit up (I lie, their back muscles are not ready for sitting up yet; they lay around) in Didi’s house, supervised by an ancient Nepali lady whose nanny-ing wage is paid for equally by the mothers. In a society where to obtain any job is a fiercely competitive struggle, these mothers bring their babies to work, where they can be nearby and able to be breastfeed their children whenever needed during their work day.
This isn’t some structured initiative people had to strategise about. It is a natural part of FEDO, that has grown from necessity, with mutual understanding on all fronts that mothers and new-born babies should be able to be close to each other at regular times through a day. Yes, the ideal, too, in Nepal, is that the mother could take some time off, to enjoy motherhood, but the economic realities of Nepal dictates that situations like this one have come into being, because they had to. It’s just what young mums working at FEDO do. It is a situation that both old and young staff alike understands, because they’ve either had kids themselves, have them now, or will have them sometime in future.
Isn’t that great? These mums are as happy as can be – still advancing their careers, working hard in the struggle for Dalit rights, loving their jobs – whilst at the same time able to see their little bambinos throughout the day, to feed and cuddle them whenever needed… it’s just really nice. It is a stark contrast to friends I have, other young mums struggling with the baby/career/having-it-all issues back in Australia:
“I hate doing it but I’ve had to put my baby onto formula milk.”
“Since I’ve gone back to work, he prefers the bottle now and won’t take my breast anymore.”
“I can’t trust anyone to look after him all day and can’t concentrate on my work worrying about him all day.”
“I can’t find a day-care centre who takes them under four months old.”
“I love my job but I feel like I’m missing out on my baby growing up.”
Have we got it wrong, back there in the West? I can’t help but think that we do. In fact, I think every day should be a Bring Your Baby to Work Day. It’s beneficial for both mother and child, and judging by what I see here at FEDO, productivity is increased, if anything. Time previously spent on Facebook and gasbagging are now spent breast feeding and nursing. My colleagues appreciate being able to have their babies at work, and tend to work even harder in the time they have to do a good job.
However the archetypal 9-5 office environment doesn’t really support this amazing idea – in fact it actively discourages it. To be fair, most Western countries, including Australia and Canada, have some form of maternity and paternity leave available – in some cases, such paid leave is damn generous – but should we have to remove the whole mother-and-baby ‘issue’ from the whole workplace, out of sight, out of mind, back into the private domestic sphere? Couldn’t we incorporate the two a bit more? I reckon we can – I’ll start working on my slogan: ‘Hip hip hooray! It’s Bring Your Baby to Work Day!’
I’ll keep working on it.
(picture via Wikimedia Commons)