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Law on forced breast-feeding? – They own our bodies now?

By Helen Ovbiagele

Without any bias, Nigerians are among the most intelligent persons in the world, in my opinion.  Go to any far-flung country, and you’ll find at least one Nigerian quietly making waves in his/her field; be it in Medicine, Science, Music, Acting, Politics and even in Philanthropy.  Within the country, brains abound in all fields too.

Why, one may ask, are we not getting things right in governance in spite of this?  I’ve just come to realize that it’s because many of those in decision-making positions, prefer to chase the shadows instead of  the real substance that would be of benefit to the citizens of this country.

We won’t pay attention to the real problems in the country which have pushed our country down on the global scale, and made a small country like Ghana,  (about the size of the old Bendel State) now the bright star in the West African sub-region.

As I was writing this article, a reader sent in this text which I decided to include in my piece:
‘Madam, did you watch the funeral rites and procession of late Ghanaian President Atta Mills on AIT TV station today? It makes one wonder if any Nigerian President, dead or alive, except Murtala Mohammed, could have commanded such general outpouring of grief and loss from the generality of the people. That tells you the difference between a leader and a ruler. – Harriest’

When I read the headline ‘FG considers Bill on compulsory breast-feeding’ in the Vanguard of August 9, 2012, I really felt sad for the citizens of this country.

‘The Federal  Government, yesterday, said it was considering sending a bill to the National Assembly, which would promote and make breast feeding compulsory for all nursing mothers in the country. Minister of Health, Professor Onybuchi Chukwu, at the grand finale of the World Breast Feeding Week in Ugbodo, Ebonyi Local Govt Area of the State, said that the bill when passed into law, will stipulate appropriate sanctions for defaulting mothers.’

Did the Hon. Federal Minister for Health, a learned gentleman, really say such a thing in this day and age, when we’re so overwhelmed by so many serious problems, threatening our very survival? Will   compulsory breast-feeding improve the healthcare in the country?

Won’t passing such a law be a gross infringement on  our women’s  human rights, and show Nigeria up as a country living in the dark ages, in spite of the intelligent and achieving citizens that we have?  We would be the butt of joke all over the world. We may still be regarded a third-world country, but we’re too enlightened to consider such a bill, which aims at eroding the rights that our women have over their own bodies with regards to their own babies.

That apart, how can you monitor whether a woman is breast-feeding her baby or not?  Will there be a special police unit established for this?  Will the government waste time and money in employing agents who would go live with a nursing mother in her house and follow her about to ensure that she breast-feeds her baby?  How will husbands react to strange men coming into their homes to gape at their wives breasts, saying they’ve come to ensure that she’s breast-feeding?

For credibility and seriousness of purpose in the posts they are in charge of, those in decision-making positions should avoid utterances which are not only ridiculous, but impractical.

Now, the truth is that breast milk is best for baby.   Not only is it the most nutritious a baby can have, it is the safest, the cheapest, and the most convenient food to carry around for the  baby.  All you need is have a convenient place away from prying eyes, to feed your baby.  Mother’s milk hardly ever brings infection to the baby, unless, as we were told years ago, if the mother is HIV positive, and there’s fear that she could pass it on in her milk.  Otherwise, breast milk is safe for most babies.

Every year, we mark the World Breast-feeding week.  I have no problem with this, and when I was on the beat, I used to cover the events marking it – by UNICEF, NGOs, and Government Health units, and report on these activities.  Still, from my own findings, the average Nigerian woman enjoys giving breast-milk to her baby.  In fact, she delights in showing off that she’s a mother, by proudly breast-feeding her baby in public.

I’ve written several times on the need for the hospitality industry to advise hotels and restaurants to have ‘rest rooms’ where mothers can breast-feed and change their babies’ diapers in private.  It’s obscene for a woman to bring out her breast in public and begin to breast-feed her baby these days.  The sight, could have a worse effect on some susceptible minds than that of scantily-dressed girls which we’re told, could be provocative.

Women who are breast-feeding need to be cautious about the venue, for their own safety, though this is still a common sight in small towns and communities; on the farms,  in the markets, in shops, etc. Breast-feeding is  the most natural thing for any mother to do, and new mothers look forward to it, because of the bond it establishes between them and their babies.

They don’t need to be told or forced.  Many women here are poor, and they cannot afford Baby Formula which is usually quite expensive, even if you earn well.  At almost two thousand naira for a small tin, it costs a fortune to feed a baby well on it.  So, most Nigerian women rely on breast milk to feed their baby well and cheaply.

Of course there are cases where    a nursing mother who works is unable to breast-feed her baby at work.  Even these ones, instead of relying on baby formula, express the milk from their breasts into several feeding bottles which they store away in freezers.  These bottles are later placed in a container of warm water to heat it up, and feed the baby with.

I’m aware of the need for the Hon. Minister for Health, to make a speech, stressing the importance of breast milk for both the mother and her baby, on such an occasion, as this is an appropriate thing to do, but threatening prosecution if they don’t, was a bit over the top. I’m sure he knew that implementation of such a law is impossible, that’s if the human rights people allow it to be passed.

A bill that his Ministry can sponsor is one which will make it mandatory for all government hospitals in the federation to give full and free medical care to all pregnant women/nursing mothers and their babies,  until the baby is six.  It should concentrate on reducing the extremely high infant mortality in the country, and ensure adequate pre and post natal care for pregnant women.  I’m sure the hon. Minster  knows that half  the  population of this country don’t use hospitals because they’re too poor to pay the fees that the government charges for the dismal services in its hospitals.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.