Van Esterik, Coordinator,
Women and Work Taskforce
World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA)
Breastfeeding is an important women's issue, human rights issue,
and feminist issue, since breastfeeding empowers women and contributes
to gender equality. Women who wish to breastfeed their babies but
cannot - because of inadequate support from family or health workers,
constraints in the workplace, or misinformation from the infant
food industry - are oppressed and exploited. Groups and individuals
interested in fighting for women's rights and human rights should
take action to change this situation, and recognize breastfeeding
as a woman's right.
Women are empowered by asserting the value of both their productive
and reproductive work. Women should never be forced to make a choice
between mother-work and other work. Conditions supportive to successful
nurturing, including breastfeeding, are conditions which reduce
gender subordination generally by contradicting negative stereotypes
of women and emphasizing the value of women's work.
Why should women's groups put their valuable time and resources
behind breastfeeding campaigns and programs?
1) Breastfeeding requires changes in society to improve
the position and condition of women.
Breastfeeding encourages women's self-reliance by increasing their
confidence in their ability to meet the needs of their infants.
Breastfeeding requires women to have confidence in themselves, and
enough self esteem to protect (or in some contexts, demand) their
rights, including their right to breastfeed. Women with a positive
self image may be less likely to assume that they do not have enough
breastmilk, or that their breastmilk is of poor quality.
Breastfeeding focuses attention on the need to insure equality
in the distribution of food and other resources within the household.
Since breastfeeding women's nutrient requirements are higher per
unit weight than those of adult men, priority must be given to breastfeeding
women in the distribution of food. In some societies, women may
not receive enough food to insure their own health and that of their
2) Breastfeeding confirms a woman's power to control her
own body, and challenges the male-dominated medical model and business
interests that promote bottle feeding.
Successful breastfeeding reduces women's dependence on medical
professionals and discourages further medicalization of infant feeding.
The knowledge mothers and midwives have about infant care and feeding
increases in value and importance.
When breastfeeding is highly valued, the social and physical costs
of breastfeeding are more carefully considered. Women's bodies are
finite, and cannot be overburdened without causing suffering and
loss of their productive and reproductive capacities. Breastfeeding
mothers need access to adequate food, health care, and a supportive
3) Breastfeeding challenges the media model of women as
The decision not to spend cash on breastmilk substitutes is a rejection
of a consumption pattern forcing women to rely on expensive, industrially
produced foods. As purchasers of infant formula, women devalue their
own capacities, and seek commercial solutions to infant feeding.
The constant efforts of infant formula manufacturers to expand their
markets for these products fuels the advertising campaigns directed
to women as consumers.
4) Breastfeeding challenges views of the breast as primarily
a sex object.
How did breasts become defined as sex objects for male pleasure
rather than as the source of food and comfort for children? The
sex industry and beauty industry have succeeded in objectifing women's
breasts through media and advertising, making it difficult for some
women to breastfeed in public. When feeding bottles are used in
public for fear of public exposure of breasts, or when women's reasons
for choosing bottle feeding include fears that breastfeeding will
alter the shape of their breasts, then women are being treated as
sex objects. Women's fears about exposing their breasts are more
than confirmed when North American women are arrested or asked to
leave public places for breastfeeding openly. Thanks to the efforts
of women activists, breastfeeding women are reclaiming their breasts
as valued parts of their bodies and refusing to be treated as sex
5) Breastfeeding requires a new definition of women's work
- one that more realistically integrates women's productive and
In the sexual division of labour, infant care usually falls to
women. It is women who have the capacity to provide food for their
infants, ensuring women's self-reliance and their infants' survival
for the first few months of life. Women give birth and produce milk.
If the work of breastfeeding is valued as productive work, not a
woman's duty, then conditions for its successful integration with
other activities must be arranged. These arrangements include legislation
to provide maternity leaves and breastfeeding breaks, affordable
child care, and other strategies developed by women workers. A woman-centred
definition of work must take into consideration the importance of
nurturance and caring, including breastfeeding.
6) Breastfeeding encourages solidarity and co-operation
among women at the household, community, national, and international
Within households, women often work together to share child care
and other responsibilities. Other family members can play a useful
role in assisting new mothers by providing advice on managing breastfeeding
and helping with household tasks.
Internationally, women as individuals and as members of health
and consumer organizations have lobbied governments on behalf of
breastfeeding and protested against the commercial interests that
put profit over the wellbeing of mothers and infants. The campaigns
against the promotion of infant formula mobilized women all over
the world to join consumer groups and to rediscover for themselves
how women in developed and developing countries face many similar
problems. Coalitions between women in developed and developing countries
on issues like breastfeeding are potential opportunities for empowering
women and for identifying common constraints that limit women's
power to care for their children. Men have an important role to
play in changing conditions for women and in changing their own
attitudes toward breastfeeding and women's work.
WORDS AND ACTION
The meaning of the term feminism is continually contested and
changing. In fact, there is no one "feminism" but a number
of "feminisms". One general definition uses feminism to
refer to theories that explain the causes of women's oppression
and actions that seek the "eradication of gender subordination
and of other forms of social and economic oppression based on nation,
class, or ethnicity (Sen and Grown 1987:18). A number of Asian activists
and academics agreed upon the following definition of feminism:
"An awareness of women's oppression and exploitation in society,
at work and within the family, and conscious action by women and
men to change this situation" (Bhasin and Khan 1986:2).
I'M NOT A FEMINIST, BUT.....
I'M A FEMINIST, BUT.....
NO BUTS! BREASTFEEDING EMPOWERS WOMEN!
Sen, G. and C. Grown. 1987. " Development, Crises, and Alternative
Visions". New York: Monthly Review Press.
Bhasin, K.. and N.S. Khan. 1986. "Some Questions on Feminism
and its Relevance in South Asia". New Delhi: Indraprastha Press.
What can Women's Groups do?
1. Campaign for politicians who support policies that help
2. Lobby national commissions on women and status of women
groups to include breastfeeding in their action plans.
3. Boycott products whose advertising on TV and in magazines
uses women's breasts as promotional tools.
4. Make sure that female babies are breastfed and given
complementary foods as often as male babies.
5. Encourage artists to present paintings, photographs,
poems, and plays celebrating the power of maternity and breastfeeding,
and the beauty of breasts.
6. Welcome breastfeeding mothers at women's meetings and
seminars, and provide child care facilities.
7. Ask key women in public office to endorse World Breastfeeding
Week and to include breastfeeding messages in their speeches.
How does Breastfeeding fit with other Women's Issues?
1. Human Rights
By focusing on enabling women to breastfeed we address women's
rights since the improvement of women's social and economic status
is necessary for supporting breastfeeding. Any violation of women's
right to breastfeed is a violation of women's human rights.
2. Reproductive Health
Breastfeeding helps child spacing and reduces the risks of ovarian
and breast cancers.
3. Violence against Women
Pregnant and lactating women are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
Obstacles to breastfeeding such as inappropriate hospital practices
and promotion of infant formula are also examples of violence against
4. Sisterhood is powerful
Mother-to-mother support among breastfeeding women is the most
important gift one woman can give to another.
5. The Right to Education
Women with higher education are more likely to breastfeed. Education
empowers women to ask questions, challenge the health care system,
and demand a supportive environment for breastfeeding.
6. Women and Work
As more women enter the formal sector and increase their earning
power, they are demanding more child care facilities and opportunities
to continue breastfeeding. Productivity and work satisfaction increases.
Some feminists have criticized breastfeeding advocates, arguing
that they want to tie women down, and keep them at home to feed
babies and change dirty diapers. This is not the case. Women's groups
must make sure that their efforts on behalf of breastfeeding are
not used by traditionalists and conservative policy makers against
women's interests. How can this be done?
- request that policy makers consult with women's groups before
breastfeeding legislation is drafted.
- recognize that breastfeeding is an emotional issue for many
women and develop strategies for framing the issue in non- judgemental
- plan how to counter possible negative effects such as employers
threatening to fire women rather than provide maternity entitlements.
- insure that breastfeeding campaigns stress the welfare of both
the mother and child.
If you have Comments, Questions or Queries, Contact:
WOMEN AND WORK TASK FORCE
WORLD ALLIANCE FOR BREASTFEEDING ACTION (WABA)
York Centre for Health Studies, York University
4700 Keele Street, North York, Ontario, M3J 1P3, CANADA
Coordinator: Penny Van Esterik, Tel +416.736.5941
Fax +416.736.5986, Email: c/o email@example.com
Formerly part of
BREASTFEEDING: A FEMINIST