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Why Can’t Pakistan Make Its Mind Up About Breastfeeding?

If breastfeeding is a Holy Duty in Pakistan, why does it shy away from ensuring women feel comfortable doing so?

Updated
Women
4 min read
Why Can’t Pakistan Make Its Mind Up About  Breastfeeding?
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Shehbaz Sharif, the current CM of Punjab, is likely to become a popular Prime Minister of Pakistan, thanks to the Panama Papers and breastfeeding. No, this is not the story of Oedipus Rex.

If sources are to be believed, his ascent only awaits disqualification of elder brother Nawaz Sharif owing to the pending Panama case. His popularity, on the other hand, rests on, among other things, initiatives taken by the Punjab government to promote breastfeeding. In a recent newspaper ad announcing the implementation of The Punjab Protection of Breastfeeding and Child Nutrition (Amendment) Act 2012, Shehbaz Sharif beatifically smiles upon a young mother cradling her babe.

The Mammaries and the Welfare

As per a 2016 UNICEF report, only 37.7 per cent of infants under six months are exclusively breastfed in Pakistan. Additionally, around 48 per cent children suffer from malnutrition as noted by the Pakistan Paediatrics Association (PPA). 12 per cent among these are “severely malnourished, who are exposed to diseases like pneumonia, diarrhoea and measles due to which they risk deaths.” The PPA has been asking for strict implementation of the breastfeeding laws to protect children from malnutrition.

Pakistan has state-specific laws for breastfeeding namely, The Punjab Protection of Breastfeeding and Child Nutrition (Amendment) Act 2012; The Sindh Protection and Promotion of Breastfeeding and Child Nutrition Bill, 2013; The Balochistan Protection and Promotion of Breastfeeding and Child Nutrition Bill, 2014 and The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Protection of Breastfeeding and Child Nutrition Act, 2015.

The Formula Fight

The breastfeeding laws in Pakistan, however, largely focus on curbing the practice of using formula milk by taking legal actions against suppliers, doctors, health workers et al who prescribe it. The Punjab government, for example, outlaws “advertisement, promotion, and undue prescription of formula milk as an alternative of breastfeeding”. UNICEF noted in 2016 that “Bottle feeding rate has increased to 42 percent” in Pakistan.

Like in many other cases, Pakistan seems to have taken a leaf from India’s legal framework for its breastfeeding laws. The Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 1992 as amended in 2003 (IMS Act) also incriminates promotion of the formula milk. Haryana government was the first to implement the IMS Act.

UNICEF noted in 2016 that “Bottle feeding rate has increased to 42 percent” in Pakistan.
(Photo Courtesy: Flickr) 

Speaking to The Quint, Ammara Ahmad, a journalist from Punjab says,

To create public awareness about the importance of breast milk is important. However this measure, that powdered milk shouldn’t be allowed to advertise is problematic. Also, women are either working or constantly getting pregnant and weak, which leaves them with no choice but to skip the breastfeed. The government should ensure that women get maternity care, access to birth control, Vitamin D and Calcium supplements. Breastfeeding can only happen if women are healthy, free and able to plan their own families.
Ammara Ahmad, Journalist, Pakistan 
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Barking the Wrong Tree?

While the government of Pakistan is taking measures to promote breastfeeding over formula milk, they seem to be missing the larger point. Since 1990, women’s participation in the labour force has almost doubled from 13 per cent to 25 per cent in Pakistan. More and more women are making forays into spaces that were hitherto inaccessible to them.

With this socio-economic change, there is a need to modify the work-spaces and culture to support breastfeeding women. The breastfeeding laws are mostly silent on the necessity for employers to facilitate breastfeeding for working mothers by allocating space and time. There are, however, other legal provisions.

The Factories Rules (93 under section 33-Q) mandate the employer to ensure support to working mothers. Any organisation with 50 or more employees is supposed to provide a créche for employees’ children, who are 6 years or younger, with trained nurses and female servants. Women employees can use this space to breastfeed their children during their breaks. Additionally, since Pakistan is a ratifier of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 183, women workers here have the right to one or more daily breaks or a daily reduction in working hours for breastfeeding. Predictably, precious little is achieved in terms of implementation.

The newspaper advertisement in question, issued by the Punjab Government’s Primary and Secondary Healthcare Department, gives an impression that legislators in Pakistan are finally thinking of addressing this issue.

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Feminism’s Formula

The Punjab government advertisement presents the formula milk as the fodder of the devil. Verses from Koran are used to reiterate a long established medical recommendation. Yes, mother’s milk is the best for the infant but why demonise the mother if she resorts to the formula version?

Ahmad gives a right riposte to her government’s zealous breastfeeding drive.

Most women skip breastfeeding out of necessity not choice. The government should help them be healthy and easily find jobs when they are feeding. Many employers don’t allow children on workplace for even a short time.
Ammara Ahmad, Journalist, Pakistan 

Responding to whether women in Pakistan breastfeed in public Mehr Tarar, columnist and mother of a teenager, says:

No woman, even those who wear mini skirts, breastfeed in public. It’s got nothing to do with emancipation. Breastfeeding is considered a very private act that’s done far from prying eyes. However, no woman has ever been arrested for breastfeeding in public. When they feed in public they are covered with a chaddar or a dupatta. It’s something like most women in villages not wearing bras. No law against that!
Mehr Tarar, Columnist, Pakistan

If Pakistan considers breastfeeding to be a Holy duty, should it not, then, ensure women have enough time, resources, space and nutrition to nurse their infants? Ample maternity leave, for example, may work better than the Koranic verses in encouraging women to breastfeed their children.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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