complied by Jenny Buck
Leader with Hong Kong English Group
This page normally discusses the latest science about the ingredients of breastmilk, but in this issue we talk about the potential consequences for gender equality of the increasing degree of consensus among scientists that breastfeeding saves babies’ lives around the world.
The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (“WABA”), the organisation which instigated World Breastfeeding Week, issued a press release in April this year which reported, “Rural women and girls, especially in developing countries, lag significantly in nearly all facets of life – they work longer and harder in both paid and unpaid work, disproportionately carry the responsibilities of caring for their families and communities, and are under-represented in decision-making processes. Most rural women work in the informal sector with few maternity protections, if at all. Patriarchal systems hold them hostage to performing the bulk of caregiving work.”
But what if the wider community in developing countries could be educated about the important role which breastfeeding plays in the health and wellbeing of families? Could this shift the gender power balance so that mothers are given more support, not only to breastfeed but also to continue breastfeeding even if they need to take paid work outside the home? What if male family members could be persuaded to share the burden of housework and caregiving so that mothers can prioritise breastfeeding?
The WABA have set about doing precisely that. In 2016, they initiated their Empowering Parents Campaign (“EPC”), which has promoted social protection measures (such as labour rights) and changes in social norms to empower parents and caregivers to facilitate the integration of caring work – including breastfeeding – and paid work. The EPC partners with local community groups and grassroots activists to promote the importance of breastfeeding and encourage teamwork among all family members.
“The promotion, protection and support of breastfeeding in rural communities can, by design, be another entry point for the empowerment of women”, says Dr Amal Omer-Salim, WABA Executive Director.
This development is all thanks to the scientific evidence which has mounted over the past few decades about the superior health outcomes of breastfeeding, many examples of which have been reported on this page. According to the latest statement on the World Health Organization’s website, “Breastmilk promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases. Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, and helps for a quicker recovery during illness. Breastfeeding contributes to the health and well-being of mothers, it helps to space children, reduces the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer, increases family and national resources, is a secure way of feeding and is safe for the environment.”
The evidence is so overwhelming that the WHO adds, “[We] can now say with full confidence that breastfeeding reduces child mortality and has health benefits that extend into adulthood.”
As a result of the clear positive impact of breastfeeding upon public health, many national governments and international NGOs have come to share an interest in promoting breastfeeding, and those bodies have become enthusiastic partners of the EPC. Due to this widespread support from powerful organisations, we are optimistic that this campaign will bear fruit.
Close to the Heart Vol. 19, No. 3 (Late-Year 2018)
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