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Shoma A.Chatterji | 6 AUGUST, 2015

World Breastfeeding Week: Some Questions

How does it work for her?


Women’s health is intricately woven into the process of development of any nation. But who realises this in a man's world? Consider these facts: as mothers, we are responsible for the health of our children and our family members, because we give them food and tend to them when they are sick.

One major reason for this increasing neglect of the health of women in Third World countries is that most of the health-care focus around women has been in family planning, nutrition and breastfeeding. This is based on the rather juvenile if not downright silly premise that all women are married and are mothers. It ignores the health needs of the girl-child. It neglects the socially sanctioned institution of prostitution where women run the maximum amount of health risks on the job and where they are now faced with the killing threat of AIDS. AIDS does not manifest itself just physiologically on the victim but implies social, emotional, psychological and economic questions leading to the ultimate boycott of the victim from her peer group.

International food politics has ensured that agriculture in TW countries gets slanted towards cash crops which have an export market as against food crops so necessary for domestic consumption. So, in countries with a large percentage of the population living below the minimum subsistence level, nutrition gets a bad beating in the name of development. This shift in agricultural patterns victimizes women because they are the first ones to cook and serve but the last ones to eat. The WHO emphasis on breastfeeding sounds like a hollow joke in an environment where the mothers are so undernourished and so malnourished that they just don't produce breast milk! Besides, there are questions like the demand for private space for breastfeeding mothers because breastfeeding is an extremely intimate and private activity that is expected to intensify the mother-child bonding for the welfare of both. Does this happen in a Third World Country like India? Is this possible for poor, undernourished women who cannot afford a square meal much less know about the existence of nutrition vitamin intakes for the pregnant mother. Their families are not supportive either and child-birth is a duty she must go through even if she dies in the process.

Economists Eirik Evenhouse and Siobhan Reilly compared rates of diabetes, asthma, and allergies; childhood weight; various measures of mother-child bonding; and levels of intelligence among breast-fed children and formula-bred children. Almost all the differences turned out to be statistically insignificant. For the most part, the “long-term effects of breastfeeding have been overstated,” they concluded.

Hanna Rosen in her well-researched article The Case Against Breastfeeding (The Atlantic, April 2009) says that it is impossible to separate a mother’s decision to breast-feed—and everything that goes along with it—from the breast-feeding itself. The tragedy of the entire breastfeeding issue is that for women in the TW, breastfeeding is not a choice at all. The propagators of formula baby food hardly realise that the price of baby food is far beyond the purchasing power of poverty-stricken families already bogged down by the heavy burden of a highly corrupt rationing system in India which blocks access to basic food needs available at a lower price. Even in places that are accessible, the quality of the rationed foodgrains is very bad. So, how can those who find it extremely difficult to afford two square meals a day adopt formula feeding? It is like a no-exit situation – formula feeding is beyond affordability and breast-feeding is pretence on the one hand and a consolation prize on the other for the mother of the baby. So, where does she really stand?

Urban, educated and up market mothers are burdened under the moral bogie called “responsible parenthood.” Actual health benefits of breast-feeding are surprisingly thin, far thinner than most popular literature indicates. Yet, the website on World Breastfeeding Week 2015 insists on “concerted global action to support women to combine breastfeeding at work. Whether a woman is working in the formal, non-formal or home setting, it is necessary that she be empowered in claiming her and her baby’s right to breastfeed.” (http://worldbreastfeedingweek.org/) One fails to understand the logic of a third party be it the WHO or the UNICEF or any other international or national health organization ‘dictating’ mothers to breastfeed their infants. Why should any mother be told to breastfeed her baby when this should be her personal choice dependent on her ability and willingness to breastfeed her baby?

Development is not in terms of the presence of health. Development rather, should be ideologically conceived in terms of negative associations such as disease (negation of good health), malnutrition (negation of nutrition), under-nourishment, and death (negation of life.) This is precisely why health is intricately woven into women's lives both as health-providers and health-generators : healthy mothers produce healthy children. No development programme therefore, can afford to ignore the health needs of women. Barbara Rogers points out in The Domestication of Women, that, even a phrase like the status of women implies a very passive attitude towards the role of women. It is an attitude, she insists, which continues to view women as objects rather than as subjects of development. She stresses the need to include women in leadership roles within planning agencies. Throughout her book, Rogers repeats that women are already included in development and therefore, should not be perceived as being tangential to it. Separate women's projects simply serve to ghettoize women and do not change the power-relationship within the planning agencies.

Women therefore, are as central to development as they are to health. The link is clear : no health, no development. Nehru once said, you educate a woman and you educate the nation. The logic has to be extended to the question of health and development. If a woman is healthy and is a decision-making subject in the development process, the whole nation becomes healthy and then, development itself evolves into a synonym for health.

To sum up with Rosen’s question – “The actual health benefits of breast-feeding are surprisingly thin, far thinner than most popular literature indicates. Is breast-feeding right for every family? Or is it this generation’s vacuum cleaner—an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down?”

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