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What America should learn from the United Arab Emirates mandating breastfeeding

Breastfeeding: Mandate, Monetize, or just leave-it to Mom?

The United Arab Emirates’ Federal National Council recently passed a clause mandating women breastfeed their babies for two years as part of their new Child Rights Law.  And, of course, the world is going crazy over the news with every North American journalists and women’s organizations rushing to condemn the move (or so it would seem by reading some of the American press). American mommy bloggers and activists and politicians are also freaking out about how wrong it is for women, how awful for the causes of progressive parenting, and then there is that extremely rare baby who can’t have breastmilk at all (because of one of the extremely rare congenital disorders). Ironically, it comes almost simultaneous to the U.S. President, Barack Obama, giving a State of the Union specifically addressing women’s rights, the vast income inequality between the genders, and issues with maternity leave in the United States. Of course, all these same people are lauding President Obama (including myself: it is about time). I think, however, in this case America could really learn from the UAE.


Now, of course we have reason to be suspicious of the Emirate’s move mandating anything upon women—especially new mothers who are extremely vulnerable—as the Middle East doesn’t have the most progressive record on women’s rights. The United Arab Emirates is considered by many to be a leader of women’s rights among the Arab world. According to a ranking, by Reuters, of best and worst Arabic countries for women, they rank closer to the top than the bottom. Although with a strong cultural expectation of traditional gender roles, relatively few women in the workforce, and numerous laws geared towards ensuring women aren’t in control of their own bodies, it isn’t exactly what we would consider a mecca of female possibility or choice.

Yet, in some important ways, the UAE is far ahead of the U.S. For instance, back to paid maternity leave: The United States is one of only a few developed countries that does not require paid maternity leave. The Emirates mandates 45 days at full pay and there is movement to increase this. As well, looking at how women fair during and after childbirth, where the U.S. lags well behind almost the entire developed world, including the UAE. In a ranking of maternal morbidity by country the U.S. ranks 39 with 16.7 deaths per 100,000 births while the UAE ranks 26. (Sweden, by the way, is number 2 and Canada number 9 with 6.6 deaths per 100,000 births). Comparing life expectancy, the UAE also ranks better: a person is likely to live a year and half longer in the Emirates than in the US.

And, then there is breastfeeding itself. Breastfeeding provides numerous health benefits for baby and mother as well as psychological, developmental, societal, and economic benefits. Ever creditable scientific and health organization in the world including the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), and the Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) recommends women breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue for as long as it is mutually desirable. The WHO and CPS recommends two years or more and the AAP at least one year. The WHO estimates that 1.4 million lives per year would be saved if all infants were breastfed during the first six months of their life. “These deaths are not just occurring in the developing world — a recent study by infant nutrition expert Linda Folden Palmer concludes that not being breastfed doubles an infant’s chance of neo-natal death in the US,” states Gulf News. Indeed, every statistic above has some relationship to breastfeeding.

Yet, the vast majority of North American babies aren’t getting the recommended amount of breastfeeding. In the U.S. about 16 percent and in Canada about 25 percent of babies meet the suggested guidelines. In the UAE, it is closer to 35 percent by the most recent statistics I could find and this will likely rise fast under the new law.

I’m a feminist. I get the same frightening images that you get when you think about what could happen to women under the UAE’s new laws: indeed a husband might be able to sue his wife for not breastfeeding their baby. There are all sorts of civil liberties aspects that bother me and must be examined, especially because it is the Middle East where women have not been allowed the freedom of controlling their bodies and their lives like we have in North America.

Yet, for a minute, let’s put aside our squeamishness about these aspects and consider some of the other aspects of the law. For instance, the clause also states that if a woman is physically unable to nurse she should use a wet nurse. While it doesn’t make clear who is going to pay for that wet nurse, it does do something particularly important: it begins to puts an economic and social value on nursing. As well, it responds to the science of the benefits of nursing: it is better for babies to have breastmilk than formula, even if that breastmilk isn’t from their mother. In another part of this Rights of Children law, it states that the mother is entitled to medical coverage while she is pregnant and after birth. Yet again, a bold move on behalf of the government as it moves towards recognition that healthy babies depend on healthy mothers and recognizes that the government has a responsibility in both.

That, then, is at the crux of the issue. It is easy as a writer and a feminist to find the faults with a law that forces women to do anything: even when that thing is beneficial to the woman, child, and society as a whole. As an American and a woman—frankly—it makes me cringe. The hard thing is to begin to extrapolate the lessons from this law that other, free-er countries, especially the U.S. and Canada might learn. In this case, North America—and our women and children—would really benefit from understanding that our abysmally low breastfeeding rates, our high maternal mortality, and even many of our chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity are not accidents and they are not problems brought on by “bad parenting.” Indeed, inherent within America’s decision to not take a stronger stand for paid maternity leave, real breastfeeding support, baby-friendly hospitals, universal healthcare, and protection from environmental toxins is an inherent attitude that it is not the responsibility of government to care for their citizens but rather a luxury of the few that can get the best information and afford the best care.

Sure, we are free in North America to make all sorts of decision about what we want to do with our lives, but if what we WANT is to actually provide our children with the healthiest life and future it is nothing less than a gargantuan, expensive, and self-directed task.

By Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama. The Green Mama book is being
published in June! Sign-up to learn more, be entered for the chance to win a free copy, and get other helpful tid-bits delivered directly to your inbox.

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