Breastfeeding is a human right.

–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…”

Breastfeeding is a human right. 

Breastfeeding is often presented as a choice, but in many societies, infant feeding is impacted by systems of oppression and lack of supportive measures like paid parental leave, rather than simply being a product of parental choice. 

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Michigan Breastfeeding Network Executive Director Shannon McKenney Shubert, MPH, CLC has put it this way:  “In my 12-year career in the field of human milk feeding, I have never once met a birthing parent who ‘chose not to breastfeed.’ In this country, whether to breastfeed is not a choice. In this country, whether to breastfeed is a question of ‘Within all the systems of oppression that I navigate, what is the best combination of things I can do to ensure the survival of my baby, myself and the rest of my family?’” 

Access to unbiased information and support and protection to make informed decisions about proper infant and young child nutrition is a core human rights obligation and must be projected as such in international human rights law, as articulated in a Global Breastfeeding Collective (GBC) convening this fall. 

What’s more, children have the rights to life, survival and development, and the highest attainable standard of health, all protected under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

More specifically, under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children and families explicitly have the right to have information about the advantages of breastfeeding and to be supported in making choices about the best nutrition for children as part of the right to health and health care.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Strangely, children’s rights and women’s sexual and reproductive rights communities often find themselves polarized on the issue. Because the mother and child are often regarded as separate entities, issues that impact women and children can appear as though one right is above the other. But a mother and her child should be extolled as an inseparable dyad, and human rights and health advocates must continue to articulate and emphasize this important point. Breastfeeding as a human right is not an either/or argument.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Marcus Stahlhofer, WHO Maternal and Newborn and Adolescent Health and Aging, lays out how approaching breastfeeding as a human right:

  •  helps to provide legitimacy and accountability for state or government action or inaction and helps set benchmarks to assess these actions,
  • enhances multi-stakeholder engagement through indivisibility and interdependence of human rights including involvement of global, regional and national human rights mechanisms,
  • elicits a paradigm shift that transitions from nutrition and health needs to legal entitlements and associated obligations, and 
  • empowers people to demand that their rights are not negatively interfered with, such as through breastmilk substitutes and commercial milk formula (BMS/CMF) marketing.


Stahlhofer has pointed out that BMS companies use human rights arguments effectively by drawing on ideas around freedom of expression, right to intellectual property, women’s rights to autonomy, bodily integrity, and free choice to justify their predatory practices. 

There are key human rights tools and mechanisms that health advocates can employ specific to infant feeding. Some of them include:

The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) issued a position statement in regard to breastfeeding as a human right. 

“The ABM asserts that it is a moral imperative to protect the mother’s and child’s basic rights to breastfeed for their own health and wellness, as well as that of the nations in which they reside. Given the importance of breastfeeding and human milk in reducing infant mortality, governments should include breastfeeding as a leading health indicator and work toward eliminating disparities in breastfeeding outcomes and increasing rates of breastfeeding,” it reads in part. 

The White Ribbon Alliance (WRA) Charter on the Universal Rights of Women and Newborns created a proclamation on the universal rights of women and newborns. Find that here.  

You can also explore GBC’s collection of documents that support breastfeeding as a human right here.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

——–

As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:

Email info@ourmilkyway.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.

This week, in the body of the email, tell us: What does breastfeeding support look like in your community?

Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.

We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period.  Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.

Spotlight on Fédora Bernard, Program Officer at The Right Livelihood Foundation

Fédora Bernard is currently Program Officer at The Right Livelihood Foundation, an organization established to “‘honour and support courageous people solving global problems’… now widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’”. 

Bernard presenting in Rio.

Before transitioning into her work at The Right Livelihood, Bernard served as Geneva Association for Baby Food and International Liaison Office of the IBFAN Network (GIFA) Program Officer beginning in April 2019, having just newly graduated from the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales et du Développement with a Masters in International Affairs. 

This week, Our Milky Way is pleased to share a Q&A session with Bernard. 

Q: Please share a few highlights during your time with IBFAN. 

A: I am deeply passionate about human rights and GIFA was specialized in exactly that. I think that throughout my time at IBFAN, some highlights would probably be the sessions of the Committee on the Rights of the Child that I attended and advocated at, the World Health Assembly, the fifth session of the Open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights and of course, the World Breastfeeding Conference in Rio. They were all avenues where we could raise awareness and advocate for better national policies.

Q:  What would you consider your greatest triumph with IBFAN?

A: I am not sure I could speak of triumph, at the end of the day my time with IBFAN was quite short and all I did was trying to keep up with the amazing work that has been done by the Geneva office for the past 40 years. Nevertheless, I am very proud of the achievements with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, as during my time with IBFAN, “breastfeeding” was mentioned in almost all concluding observations.

Q: In November 2019, you had the opportunity to present IBFAN’s Green Feeding documents. What was that like? How was it received by participants at the World Breastfeeding Conference? 

A: It was an incredible experience, it was an honor to prepare this with Alison Linnecar, who wrote the document and to present it along with experts in the field. I don’t think that I can define myself as an expert, let alone a breastfeeding expert, but I am starting a career in advocacy. I therefore decided that I wanted to emphasize how the Green Feeding Documents could be used as an advocacy tool from an environmental perspective. Therefore, while Alison explained the science behind all of it, I focused on the link between breastfeeding and human rights, more in particular how it can be used in relation to the right to a safe, healthy environment. At the end of the presentation, I was so happy to see that most people in the audience wanted a copy of the green feeding documents…I thought that 30 copies would be enough, but clearly, I was wrong! I wish I had brought more.

Jose Angel Rodriguez-Reyes, expert of the Committee on the Rights of the Child pictured alongside Bernard.

Q: In your piece BREASTFEEDING: BEYOND “WHAT IS BEST FOR YOUR CHILD”, you mention the WHO/UNICEF Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding to Protect, Promote and Support Breastfeeding. We have the framework for better global health outcomes; What is holding us back? Is there one significant barrier standing in the way of a better world? 

A: I believe that from a political perspective, two things are holding us back: The first being the patriarchy and political systems dominated by men. As long as women will not be allowed to play a greater role in global health governance and domestic politics, public health issues such as breastfeeding or issues surrounding menstrual health will not be given the right amount of attention. 

The second element is political will, which is deeply related to the first. Breastfeeding is only seen as a public health issue in developing countries, and aggressive marketing from the formula industry has managed to convince women themselves that they are actually more empowered if they don’t breastfeed. Breastfeeding is thus seen as a weight imposed on them rather than a right that should be protected, promoted and supported by governments. In some societies, it is indeed currently a real hurdle for women to achieve their breastfeeding goals but instead of women in their breastfeeding journeys benefiting from policies, they are given a bottle. I am of the idea that improved breastfeeding policies are not only a matter of public health but also of women’s rights. 

Q: Any advice on how to navigate a climate where people dispute basic facts?

A: That is a very difficult question…Especially because those disputing basic facts are often deeply attached to their position and will give you alternative “facts”…I believe very much in trusted sources, and would always advise these people to check their sources and question them. For instance, if someone shows me an article from the industry containing “facts on breastfeeding” I would draw their attention on why this article could be biased and not based on adequate scientific evidence.

Q: Breastfeeding is a topic that spans across all disciplines. Will you please give us a glimpse into the work you’re doing at The Right Livelihood? 

A: The Right Livelihood Foundation honors and supports courageous people solving global problems, in all disciplines. IBFAN is actually one of them. With civil society space shrinking all over the world, human rights defenders are facing increasing difficulties, which is very true also for breastfeeding advocates. My work at the foundation therefore consists in using the advocacy skills that I developed with IBFAN, to support laureates all over the world.