By Tanya Munshi:
Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe.
As I returned from a fantastic startup meet in Pune (where I was invited to talk about how we can break through prejudices at work), I recalled an incident that occurred many years back. I was out for dinner with my friends at a well-known five star hotel in Vishakhapatnam. One of my friends had a baby girl and needed to feed her child. When I asked the restaurant manager about a place where a lady could breastfeed her baby, he replied saying, “Sorry ma’am, but we have no rooms available.”
Slightly taken aback, I clarified that I wasn’t asking for a hotel room but a space where a mother could feed her child in privacy. He asked us to go to the ladies bathroom instead! I must admit I was stunned at the hotel manager’s apathy. However, my friend’s baby was crying. So, having no choice, we hurried to the ladies bathroom where my friend had to sit on a chair and feed her weeping, hungry child.
Cut to several years later, I had my baby girl. When I went out for a wedding or dinner, even at five star hotels, I noticed that the ladies’ washrooms were not equipped with baby changing platforms or feeding rooms. I sat on a couch in the ladies washroom feeding my baby, while women kept walking in to powder their noses. It was disturbing and the lack of privacy made me very uncomfortable. At some malls I had to feed my baby in a changing room!
Asking a nursing mother to feed her baby in the bathroom is like asking an adult to have a meal in a bathroom! If you can’t imagine having your lunch or dinner there, how can you expect a baby to get her feed in a bathroom? Don’t you think that food and shelter is a nursing mother’s basic right?
During my days of working in e-learning, we learned all about ‘accessibility‘, which refers to the “design of products, devices, services, or environments for people who experience disabilities.” However, the more I understood accessibility, the more I realised that ‘accessibility’ doesn’t have to limit itself to electronic media or people with disabilities. It encompasses the needs of a wider audience – pregnant moms, infants, senior citizens, et al. Since hotels, malls and other institutions are in the services industry, and cater to people directly, they have to ensure that certain basic accessibility standards are met, and something as basic as a platform to change a baby’s diapers or a cosy nook to nurse a baby, are absolute musts for a nursing mom and her infant.
Luckily, not all spaces are so oblivious to the needs of mothers. Inorbit Mall in Malad, Mumbai, has a fantastic baby care room with a feeding area. It makes my life so easy when I had to step out to shop or for a meal. Even smaller airports like Coimbatore have a baby changing room and a feeding room. During my trips abroad, I noticed that baby changing platforms could be found even in no-frills malls and the ladies’ washrooms attached to a petrol pumps and gas stations.
At the startup summit, the audience comprised a sea of entrepreneurs, mostly men with a few women co-founders, in attendance. I, on the other hand, shared the podium with two other women founders and CEOs. This was an opportunity to share my own views on how workplaces can be sensitive to the needs of its women employees.
I posed a question – as more women joined the workforce, as founders and CEOs wouldn’t they want to make their workplaces more conducive to their women employees? Providing basic facilities such as a creches and baby nursing rooms at a workplace shouldn’t come as an afterthought but should be part of a policy, because that is a basic right of any mother – working or otherwise. I also spoke about how if a woman’s nanny doesn’t turn up at home, she should be able to bring her baby to the office and leave the little one in a crèche, while she finishes off work for the day.
I have heard of a friend talking about her sister-in-law, a pilot, who couldn’t report to work on time as her nanny hadn’t shown up. This is ridiculous! If services such as these are not a part of a woman employee’s package, how can any company to expect her to deliver 100% at work? Companies must build an ecosystem that is favourable to their employees, and this includes working moms, too. I understand that some companies in India do offer such services to women employees but it needs to become a norm across small, medium, and non-corporate companies, too. Interestingly, some months ago at one of my parenting classes, I heard someone mention that even the men’s rooms need to offer baby changing rooms for dads who may be out on baby duty!
If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse , do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.