Defending breastfeeding – our human right to the best

Over thirty mothers, breastfeeding advocates and others shared their expertise at the workshop and explored how to defend women’s right to breastfeed and babies’ right to this most nutritious, suitable and life-sustaining food. 

Selma James from LAW chaired.  Her introduction highlighted the invisible social and economic contribution made by women’s breastfeeding to the world’s health and that this is not acknowledged to be an integral part of women’s caring and biological work. 

Solveig Francis (International Women Count Network – IWCN and co-author of a new book The Milk of Human Kindness) described the forces against breastfeeding and the struggle to defend paid breastfeeding breaks in the revised ILO Maternity Protection Convention (1999 and 2000).  She reported on a conference of the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action and UNICEF in Tanzania in September 2002. 

Magda Sachs (The Breastfeeding Network) outlined the provisions of the WHO code and how it is broken all the time.  A video of a speech by Grace Loumo (Kaabong Women’s Organisation and IWCN in Uganda) at the Tanzania conference described the work of rural breastfeeding mothers in Africa.  

Gillian Samuels (Birth Companions, a group founded by natural childbirth author and advocate Sheila Kitzinger for mothers and babies in Holloway prison) described women’s struggles to breastfeed their children in prison and during lengthy court hearings.  Sylvia Salley (Black Women for Wages for Housework) and Sally Harper and Adele Phemister (Fire Brigades Union National Women’s Committee) spoke about their struggle to combine breastfeeding with full-time waged work.  Legislation can protect the rights of breastfeeding mothers and their babies in the waged workplace, but these are little known.  It was noted that women could use UK health and safety laws to defend their babies’ right to breast milk.  The women from the Fire Brigades Union said they wanted to work more closely with LAW and other organisations at the workshop to improve their maternity policies, remove obstacles to breastfeeding and strengthen the situation of women fire service workers who want to breastfeed.  

Representatives of La Leche League and the Breastfeeding Mothers Association also contributed to the discussions.  Participants were shocked at the information which came out at the workshop that only 1/3 of babies worldwide are exclusively breastfed, resulting in the death of 1.5 million infants a year overwhelmingly in the South who are fed formula.  In the UK, 70% of women start breastfeeding; but this drops to 42% by the time babies are six weeks old and only 21% of mothers breastfeed fully for at least six months.  Mothers who are labeled HIV+ are told not to breastfeed and threatened with loss of child custody if they do.

It was generally agreed that by bringing together a range of women from different backgrounds to discuss a subject which is often confined to breastfeeding circles and in the context of how to defend women’s and children’s right to breastfeed, broadened the discussion and brought in new forces and a fresher perspective.  Women left encouraged and strengthened to continue their work.

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