Zuleikha Hassan, a Kenyan lawmaker, was forced out of the parliamentary chamber in Nairobi after bringing her 5-month-old daughter to a legislative session on Wednesday.
Hassan, who serves as Kwale county’s Women Representative — a member of parliament elected to promote the interests of women and girls — said an emergency had left her without child care for the day, putting her in a tough position.
The baby’s presence at the National Assembly caused an uproar among some male members of parliament who pointed out that “strangers,” including the children of members of parliament, are not allowed in the chamber, the BBC reported.
Temporary Deputy Speaker Christoper Omulele ordered Hassan to leave as security guards approached her. Hassan then exited the chamber, accompanied by fellow female legislators who chose to leave the parliamentary session in solidarity.
The incident has sparked outcry and heated debate on social media.
I stand in solidarity with my sister and fellow working mom, Hon. Zuleika Hassan. As we conclude #WorldBreastfeedingWeek, I call on @MOH_Kenya to prioritize breastfeeding, and ensure women are supported to exclusively breastfeed in their homes, communities and at their workplace. pic.twitter.com/JsFD4EJLRJ— Hon. Esther M Passaris (@EstherPassaris) August 7, 2019
The ejection of @Mpzuleikahassan Kwale Women Rep) from the chambers of the National Assembly today ostensibly for introducing a “stranger” in the person of her 5 month old child to the Honorable House is the most shocking example of misogyny I have seen in recent times!— Dr. Noah Akala (@OduwoNoahAkala) August 7, 2019
Even more surprising is the fact that there exists a law passed by that very House (Health Bill, 2015) regarding the establishment of crèche services in work places for breastfeeding mothers. If the Kenya National Assembly cannot implement and respect its own laws then who will!?— Dr. Noah Akala (@OduwoNoahAkala) August 7, 2019
Senior @EtalePhilip those who claim not to be misogynists must always remember that there is no world where the presence of a child anywhere is such dishonorable thing. My admiration and respect to Hon. @SamuelAtandi, who stood with Hon. Zulekha Hassan. pic.twitter.com/tsOSYS5VfO— DD (@Disembe) August 7, 2019
Critics have accused Hassan of intentionally causing a scene, saying that, as a lawmaker, she had the power to advocate for child care resources beforehand. But she said she had not intended to bring her daughter to work as an act of protest.
“This is my third baby [while serving] in parliament and I’ve never done this,” she said in an interview with Citizen TV Kenya after the incident. “I’ve tried really hard not to come with a baby, but today I had an emergency — so what was I supposed to do?”
Hassan said the Parliamentary Service Commission, an independent commission that deals with the operations and smooth functioning of Kenya’s Houses of Parliament, passed a motion to provide spaces for breastfeeding members of parliament and child care support in 2013, but no such space has been created yet. She and the other female legislators lamented that the government has failed to lead by example by providing such resources at the highest levels of government, despite passing a bill in 2017 requiring employers to create spaces for breastfeeding women and to allow them adequate time to feed their babies or pump breastmilk.
The controversial incident occurred on the last day of World Breastfeeding Week, during which NGOs like World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action and the World Health Organization encourage parents who are able to breastfeed and raise awareness about the long-term health benefits of breastfeeding on children.
Hassan told Citizen TV Kenya that she is still breastfeeding her daughter and would like to continue to do so for as long as possible. She said that if Parliament had established a breastfeeding room and a nursery or child care facilities that she would have been able to bring her child to work without bringing her into the law-making chamber itself.
“[If] there’s nowhere you can put the baby then you have to choose: either you come to work or you don’t come to work. So I thought let me just come with the baby to work so that I show up for and represent the people of Kwale despite having my baby,” Hassan said.
“It shouldn’t be a punishment to have a baby it’s a normal part of life … Now I’ve been chased from work for having a baby,” she added.
The National Gender and Equality Commission issued a statement saying that Hassan’s ejection from the chambers of the national assembly amount to discrimination.
“Motherhood cannot be a basis to deny nursing female members of parliament a chance to conduct their legislative duties as enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya,” Joyce Mutinda, chairperson of the commission, said in a statement, calling on the government to immediately take action to address the need for a daycare facility and lactation station.
Kenya has made great strides in promoting breastfeeding in recent decades. The percentage of mothers exclusively breastfeeding their babies rose 48% between 2003 and 2015, according to the National Demographic and Health Survey. And the 2017 breastfeeding bill aims to help encourage even more mothers to breastfeed their babies when possible by making it easier to do so.
“A breastfeeding mother is feeding and nurturing her baby, and it is discrimination to treat a woman unfavorably because of it,” Jean Paul Murunga, Equality Now’s End Harmful Practices program officer, told Global Citizen. “She should never have to shoulder the burden of other people’s hang ups or be made to feel ashamed. Politicians and government have a leading role to play in promoting a culture where breastfeeding is supported and normalized.”
And while Hassan initially said she wasn’t planning to make a statement about breastfeeding or being a working mother by bringing her daughter to parliament, she and her fellow female lawmakers are now speaking up.
“For a very long time women have been subjected to choosing their careers over their babies or choosing their babies over their careers, we are saying: Enough is enough,” Sarah Korere, a member of parliament representing Laikipia North, told Citizen TV Kenya while carrying Hassan’s baby. “We will progress with our careers, we will progress with our motherhood duty and we will do it to perfection — both of them.”
“A baby is not an atomic bomb, they won’t explode in the House [of Parliament] … I think it is high time the women of this country stand up for their rights and the rights of their children,” she added.