2017-12-15 10:28:24

A baby-changing station inside a men’s restroom at Beijing Capital International Airport has raised eyebrows among Chinese women, who have long called for more, and better maintained, maternal care facilities to keep pace with booming demand.

On Friday, Beijing Youth Daily reported on the uncomfortable experience of a mother surnamed Wang, who was forced to enter a men’s restroom at the airport in order to access the specially designated “family” stall and breast-feed her hungry child. Wang told Beijing Youth Daily that she was worried a man might come in while she was breast-feeding. When reporters visited the restroom in question, they found that it smelled strongly of cigarette smoke.

The airport responded on Friday, explaining that the special stall was not technically a nursing station, but rather a “family toilet.” However, Beijing Youth Daily said that an airport staff member had confirmed that the men’s restroom contained a nursing station because of a shortage of space elsewhere, though a placard bearing that designation was not displayed at the toilet. The article was no longer accessible on Beijing Youth Daily’s website on Friday afternoon.

Wang’s experience mirrors that of millions of mothers in China, who often find the facilities they require to care for their children substandard, if they’re present at all. As the gap between demand for and supply of maternal care facilities such as baby-changing stations and breast-feeding rooms widens, China’s mothers are left wondering whether their privacy and personal hygiene will ever be guaranteed.

In 2012, hundreds of mothers across the country staged breast-feeding-themed flash mobs in cities including Beijing, Chengdu, and Hangzhou, appealing for public support to create more nursing stations. The discussion was reignited in February 2016 when Chinese actress Ma Yili ranted on microblogging platform Weibo about the poor condition of a maternal care station at a Shanghai airport. “I guess the designers of the nursing room are men who have never taken care of babies in the outside world,” wrote Ma, who was particularly peeved that there was no sink for her to wash her hands in after changing her infant’s diaper.

In a guideline released in November 2016, the National Health and Family Planning Commission set an ambitious goal: By 2020, there should be nursing rooms at all workplaces and public venues, where such facilities are deemed necessary. The guideline also specified how large the rooms should be and what equipment — changing tables and sinks, for example — they should contain.

Li Liushuang, the mother of a one-and-a-half-year-old girl in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that the maternal care facilities she uses are rarely up to standard. In most cases, Li finds the rooms poorly maintained, sometimes even with used diapers lying around. When considering how to go on a long-distance trip with her daughter, she said, “the train was definitely not an option.”

An article by Party newspaper People’s Daily also found that China falls short of acceptable nursing facilities — a problem, it says, that is only likely to worsen as the country faces a two-child-policy baby boom.

The dearth of breast-feeding and changing rooms in China is a large part of why the country’s breast-feeding rate is so low, according to UNICEF. The children’s rights group estimated breast-feeding rates in China to be around 20 percent, much lower than the international average of 38 percent. To promote breast-feeding — an important means of building up a child’s immune system — the organization in 2013 launched a campaign called “10 Square Meters of Love,” after the amount of space that should be set aside for breast-feeding mothers in public places.

Zhou Xinxin, a self-described breast-feeding activist in central China’s Hubei province, told Sixth Tone it’s a positive sign that the number of nursing facilities have increased in recent years. “The major problem now is how to improve the conditions of these spaces,” said Zhou, who added that more detailed requirements for the facilities should be put into place, and that these requirements should be more rigorously enforced. “Just like the toilet revolution,” she said, “I believe the situation will improve if our society’s level of civilization improves.”

Editor: David Paulk. 

(Header image: A mother changes her infant’s diaper at a shopping mall in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, May 8, 2014. Zheng Kaifu/VCG)