Breast­feed­ing a mea­sure in gen­der equal­ity bat­tle

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - OPINION - ROBIN BARANYAI

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.

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