Breastfeeding a measure in gender equality battle
When we talk about human progress toward gender equality, there’s no shortage of yardsticks to measure how far we’ve come, and how far there is yet to go — the wage gap, reproductive freedom, representation in government and freedom from violence.
Another, less obvious metric for progress can be found in one of the few activities in which men cannot participate. Breastfeeding may seem like an unusual benchmark for equality and yet it comprises many dimensions.
The extent to which breastfeeding is supported affects women’s participation in the workforce and the extent to which it is undermined has direct impacts on poverty, which disproportionately affects women.
The choice between breast and bottle is highly personal, and one for which women should not be demonized. It’s also clear not all women have a choice. Some mothers, despite the best efforts of lactation consultants, can neither breastfeed nor pump.
That said, the advantages of breastfeeding are well documented.
Promotion of breastfeeding is an important public health initiative with measurable impacts. A 2016 series in the Lancet concluded universal breastfeeding could prevent 823,000 child deaths a year, citing increased immunity to infection, higher intelligence, and “probable protection” against diabetes and overweight. It could also save the lives of 20,000 mothers through cancer prevention.
The economic benefit, according to the Lancet, would be US$300 billion. But those savings would come at the expense of a reported $70 billion global industry.
Past practices promoting infant formula in the developing world created a global backlash in the 1970s and ’80s.
Many new mothers were led to believe supplementing with formula was a healthier, more modern option for their babies. Distribution of free samples — now prohibited under marketing rules for infant formula adopted in 1981 — was the nail in the coffin.
As bottle feeding increased, breast milk production naturally diminished, until families had no option but to continue with expensive formula. Some would try to stretch their budget by watering it down, fatally compromising nutrition.
This week, the New York Times reported the Trump administration’s efforts to derail a resolution promoting breastfeeding at the World Health Assembly. The resolution — stating breast milk is the healthiest option for infants, and nations should take action to minimize inaccurate marketing of substitutes — devolved into a cascade of bully tactics, including threatening nations with trade measures and cuts to military aid. At least a dozen countries backed away from the resolution, according to several officials, before Russia stepped in as an unlikely champion.
The bizarre diplomatic episode comes at a time when more women are choosing to breastfeed.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who became a new mom three weeks ago, is the latest darling of workplace equity. “I am not the first woman to work and have a baby,” Ardern said, planning her return to work after six weeks. She has stated her intention to breastfeed for “as long as we can,” including at work when necessary.
Just last month, Canadian Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould made headlines as the first federal minister to nurse a baby in the House of Commons. “No shame in breastfeeding! Baby’s gotta eat & I had votes,” she tweeted.
There’s a direct line from breastfeeding support, to more women in government, to more balanced legislation supporting women’s rights. Women hold just 23.7 per cent of parliamentary seats worldwide, according to UN Women.