Breastfeeding is recognized as a human rights issue for both mothers and babies, and those who wish to breastfeed their children have the right to unbiased and accurate information to be able to make informed choices.
There are numerous barriers facing women worldwide in regards of optimal breastfeeding. Inappropriate and varying knowledge and skills among healthcare workers, non-existent maternity leave and non-supportive cultural practices are only a few that affect and hinder women who wish to breastfeed.
On November 22nd, a joint statement by a group of UN experts was released to urge action on one major obstacle: the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, also known as formula. Together, they call upon Member States to implement legal measures to protect babies and mothers from misleading, and often aggressive marketing.
Let’s have a look at some facts:
- Global sales of breast-milk substitutes total US$ 44.8 billion
- In 2019, the number is expected to rise to US$ 70.6 billion
- Of 194 countries analyzed, 135 have some form of legal measure in place related to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (also known as the Code)
- However, only 39 countries have laws that enact all provisions of the Code
As one can see, the breastmilk substitute industry is a highly profitable and rapidly growing one, which makes it even more important to establish proper and well-monitored legal frameworks in all States. The UN experts highlight that aggressive and unethical marketing is especially harmful when it’s targeting mothers in developing countries – the most vulnerable of mothers anywhere.
Since the 1970’s, when Nestlé was first accused of misleading marketing of baby foods to new mothers in the Global South (e.g. by giving out “goodie bags” with free samples of formula, and having representatives of the company wearing nurse’s uniforms and pushing formula), the industry has been subjected to harsh criticism.
The criticism continues, and the UN experts remind States of the duties which they are bound to respect and comply with:
“We remind States of their obligations under relevant international human rights treaties to provide all necessary support and protection to mothers and their infants and young children to facilitate optimal feeding practices. States should take all necessary measures to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding, and end the inappropriate promotion of breast-milk substitutes and other foods intended for infants and young children up to the age of 3 years.”
Due to the lack of progress made in the adoption of valid measures to eliminate harmful marketing towards women, the experts highlight the need to hold businesses accountable for the adverse consequences of such marketing practices, and make sure not to “blame the victim” – in this case, mothers.
I like to believe that – worldwide and generally – women want what’s best for their children. Whether or not they decide to breastfeed, proper support and protection need to be available to them, so that they can make informed decisions. The experts alert that women who do not want to, or are not able to breastfeed must not be judged or condemned:
“[I]n cases where a woman cannot breastfeed or is not willing to do so, even after having been duly informed about the benefits of breastfeeding, access to good quality breastmilk substitutes should be regulated and affordable.”
The criticism of the under-regulation of the multi-billion dollar baby milk industry is valid, and the marketing practices used negatively affect women in their choices about how the feed their children. In order to reach the 2025 Global Targets of increasing the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months to at least 50%, countries need to take more action to protect, promote and support breastfeeding as a human right.
The joint statement was issued by the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food and the Right to Health, the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.