Breastfeeding – a human right

A study found that exposure to household smokers had a substantial negative effect on breastfeeding practices. pic: ADSA

There is a saying that, while exclusive breastfeeding may not seem to be the preferred choice for some mothers, it is certainly the best choice for every baby as the milk is nutritionally balanced, delicious and not easily contaminated. 

As the marks breastfeeding week from August 1-7 it is still incumbent upon many of us to raise awareness around the importance of it. Exclusive breastfeeding means that the infant receives only breast milk. At the stage whether a mother begins her breastfeeding journey, it is appreciated and often recommended that no other liquids or solids be given not even water with the exception of oral rehydration solution, drops/syrups of vitamins, minerals or medicines.

Breast milk contains all the nutrients an infant needs in the first six months of life. Breastfeeding your baby also protects them against diarrhoea and common childhood illnesses such as pneumonia. It may also have long-term health benefits for the mother and child, such as reducing the risk of overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence.

Breast milk, which has nutrients beneficial for infants in the first six months, also contains antibodies that help protect babies against some childhood diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia, which are the leading causes of child mortality globally.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), breastfeeding is good for moms too. Some of the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding in for mothers include the reduction of risks associated with breast and ovarian cancers as well as type II diabetes and postpartum depression. It also increases the bonding between baby and mom – a notion that studies have shown and proved to be most beneficial. Despite some of these benefits for both mother and child, breastfeeding especially in public spaces continues to be frowned upon by individuals and businesses.  

It may appear totally unnecessary to have a ‘normalise breastfeeding campaign’ in South Africa however, this is exactly what we have. This campaign kicked off two years ago after a breastfeeding mother was kicked out of a well known national clothing chain store. Interestingly, the mission of the Normalise Breastfeeding SA Campaign is to “secure new legislation that protects moms who nurse in public from harassment and against discrimination (and) to keep on raising awareness around normalising breastfeeding, the biological norm of baby food. 

It is a campaign that has laudable objectives which all government departments and all sectors of civil society should fully support. These campaigns also serve as a successful tools to discriminate, not only against the breastfeeding mothers themselves, but also against the innocent babies and infants in South Africa and other parts of the world.  

Campaigns to raise awareness around breastfeeding are not unique to South Africa. For instance, earlier this year several women demonstrated in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, against what they termed as the discrimination of two mothers who breastfeed in public. The demonstration was triggered by a social media post in which a woman accused a local restaurant of discrimination after she was apparently asked by a waiter to cover up while feeding her baby.

What is noteworthy and should be commended is the fact that some business owners are starting to support moms who breastfeed. Contrary to the Kenyan incident, one of South Africa’s popular franchise restaurants, the Spur Restaurant Group, has introduced a progressive and mommy-friendly breastfeeding policy in their restaurants across the country. The group directed all its chain stores to display a “breastfeeding welcome” sign in prominent places to ensure that women do not feel compelled to seek permission to breastfeed their young ones.

In cases where the area is too loud to breastfeed as sometimes is, restaurant officials are expected to prepare a quiet‚ secluded spot with suitable seating and one which women may choose as a breastfeeding spot. We need many more more companies and organisations to emulate Spur by creating enabling environments for mothers and their babies – free from any form discrimination. 

As public breastfeeding is legal in South Africa and in many other countries, w ought to ensure that this right is supported and enforced and that those people and organisations that violate the laws are shamed and prosecuted.

Section 28 (1) of the Bill of Right states that every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation.  This is in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child which says, every infant and child has the right to good nutrition. 

This Right to basic nutrition includes the right to exclusive breastfeeding, anywhere, anytime without a mother being harassed. Unlike with public drinking which is considered an offence under the common law and ultimately banned in South Africa, eating in most public places like parks, taxi ranks, bus stations and so forth remains unregulated maybe because there  is no evidence based statistics to justify why it shouldn’t be prohibited, or it hasn’t been seen as a taboo.

The South African government in partnership with civil society organisations and donors has a long history of promoting exclusive breastfeeding as part of promoting a long and healthy life for all including children. 

There has often been fear around infants starving with some saying milk is not enough to sustain a child  but the World Health Organization recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed infants for the child’s first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health. It adds that thereafter, they can be given nutritious complementary foods and continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond.

This has been further echoed by the National Breastfeeding Consultative Summit held at the St George Hotel, outside Pretoria in Gauteng recently which is known as the Tshwane declaration of support for breastfeeding in South Africa. The participants at the summit who included Minister of Health; Deputy Minister of Health; Health MECs; DGs; HODs; Health; Experts; Academics; Traditional leaders and Traditional health practitioners etc. resolved that South Africa should declares itself as a country that actively promote, protect and support exclusive breastfeeding, and take actions to demonstrate this commitment. This includes further mainstreaming of breastfeeding in all relevant policies, legislation, strategies and protocols.

While this country and the entire global community mark the World Breastfeeding Week – the week coincides with National Women’s Month activities which serve to highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.

There is a need to encourage and support mothers as partners, families, colleagues and communities. We need to encourage them to breastfeed their children whenever and wherever without any fear of mockery and discrimination. We cannot proudly say, it takes a village to raise a child if while we dont the right of the child to be fed when hungry, support the same child to be breastfed.

Foster Mohale is a Director of Communications in the National Department of Health, responsible for Phila Campaign – a health Communication Campaign which seeks to promote a long and healthy life amongst the citizens. He writes in his personal capacity.