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Pearson security needs to respect the rights of nursing mothers

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I was at Toronto Pearson International Airport en-route to a work conference on Sept. 2. Because I am a breastfeeding mom of a six-month-old, I brought my breast pump, a bottle with less than 50 ml of breast milk and an ice pack to keep my breast milk cool in my carry-on luggage. I wasn't worried about going through security because I have been cleared many times before without any hassle.

This was not the case. The security official flagged my breast milk and my ice pack as violating the liquid requirement. According to the guidelines listed by Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), breastfeeding women -- with or without their babies -- are exempted from the liquid requirement and are allowed to bring their breast milk and ice packs in their carry-on bags.

Although I informed him that I have crossed airport security many times before, the security official was adamant that I was violating the rules. I explained to him that I was a breastfeeding mom.

"If you are breastfeeding, where is your baby?" he asked. She was with my partner, I answered. I brought my breast pump with me to ensure that I could express milk while I was away so that I would still have milk to feed my baby when I returned. He looked at me confused. It soon became clear to me that he did not understand how breastfeeding worked.

I begged him not to discard ice pack and milk because they were for my baby, but he threw them out anyway. I asked him for his first and last name, "You only get my first name," he said, "You do not get my last name."

I did not violate the rules, yet they behaved as though I did. I was humiliated and upset. I felt scapegoated. It looks like security officials have been improperly trained when it comes to their own policies, especially as they pertain to nursing women. 

Although my anecdote is an extreme example of sexist behavior, CATSA needs to brief its officials on its policies periodically and regularly give gender-sensitivity training to its officers.

It is not easy being a working and nursing mother -- especially when confronted with ignorant and abusive behavior in public spaces like the airport. Encounters such as mine show CATSA officials' ignorance of their own policies -- not to mention Ontario's provincial human rights codes, which specifically protect breastfeeding mothers against discrimination.

Arbitrary, inefficient and out of date

This incident also illustrates the inefficient and outdated nature of airport security screening. The liquid limits, in place since 2006, are completely arbitrary. Why ban liquids over 100 ml and not also ban underwear? Terrorist suspects have tried to detonate bombs hidden in their underwear too -- also unsuccessfully.  There has yet to be definitive research showing that limiting the amount of liquid to 100 mL is making travellers in airports and in airplanes safer.

The entire process of going through airport security screening is political theatre at its most useless: we all comply with draconian regulations, all because of the fear of unspecified dangers. 

Rather than blindly enforcing useless bans, such as the ban on liquids, why not ensure that officials are trained to flag suspicious behavior? According to CATSA’s 2014-2015 corporate plan, airport screening efficiency is measured "on the basis of how many passengers can be screened with every dollar paid to CATSA’s screening contractors," which means that improved security is not actually the priority but the appearance of it.

If keeping travellers safe is truly a priority, then such measurements need to be abandoned and replaced with training initiatives that instill more effective ways to detect actual security threats.

This means, then, that officials also need better working conditions. CATSA's 2014-2015 corporate plan boasts that it has the "flexibility of a non-unionized workforce," which raises questions regarding low employee morale and motivation. Giving CATSA officials greater employment stability, higher wages and more resources will lead to better airport security -- and also encourage these workers not to discriminate against breastfeeding mothers.

A previous version of this article mistakenly indicated that the security official discarded the breast pump, ice pack and milk. In fact, the official only discarded the milk and ice pack. rabble.ca regrets the error.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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