–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.
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.
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.
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,
- For example, Alejandro Morlachetti, Regional Legal Advisor, Human Rights at PAHO/WHO explains that States can be held accountable in the context of business for how they regulate companies under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
- 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 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Articles 10 & 12
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child; Articles 3,4, 6,17,24
- UN Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Bodies (TMBs)
- UN Special Rapporteurs
- Some countries have National Human Rights Institutions with active stakeholders who can monitor implementation of the Code and subsequent WHA resolutions for example.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.