Why I Breastfed a Stranger’s Baby

Originally published on Huffington Post

I was at the New York passport office in the West Village with my 7-month-old baby boy, picking up my brand new American passport after having become a citizen through naturalization. While in the waiting area, I heard a infant baby’s cry coming from the hall — you know, that heartbreaking wail that brand new babies have, that cry that makes you want to do anything and everything to help them, because they are so tiny, so new, so fragile. I watched my 7-month-old, feeling for the parents of the baby whose cries echoed from the hallway — until the cries got lost in the chatter and other noises of the space.

After I received my passport, I headed to the restroom. As I entered, I found a shaken mother with her tiny, crying baby in the bathroom. The baby was on the changing table wailing and rooting, the mom sitting on a chair holding her hand on the baby, crying helplessly. People walked in and out, staring but not stopping. I rushed up to the mom, placed my hand on her shoulder and asked what was wrong. She looked up to me and told me the baby wouldn’t stop crying and she didn’t know what to do. She said that the baby, who was only seven days old, was hungry — but would only spend a few seconds on her breast, and then let go and continue to cry. She had been supplementing with formula, but said she had ran out. She thought she wasn’t producing enough milk, and that the baby wasn’t getting full from her breast. She said she didn’t want to leave the restroom because everyone was staring at her and judging her, and that she didn’t know what to do. Teary-eyed, she asked if I had formula — but I didn’t, because my son had always been breastfed.

As I listened, watching her and the baby cry, I remembered it all so well — the chaos of those very first days and weeks with a newborn baby, how incredibly scary every moment of it was, how utterly petrified I was of messing it up, doing things wrong. The exhaustion, hormones, fear, confusion, incredible love and need to protect, all mixing up into a big storm of feelings and emotions that I didn’t know how to handle and control. This mother was in the middle of that storm, right in its eye, and not only was she going through all those emotions and feelings, but she was also in a passport office. Out in public. In front of other people who stared and looked, passed by, maybe judged — and my heart broke for her, because I could only imagine how scared she was, how tired, exhausted, and lost.

I didn’t have formula, and I told her that. But I had something else. And so I offered the only thing I could, the only thing I had: My own milk. I hesitated for a few seconds, because I was scared to offend her — but it just seemed like the only thing to do. So I asked: How would she feel if I tried to nurse her baby, just enough to calm her down, to take off the biggest edge of her hunger, and then we could think about the next step together.

She took me up on my offer in seconds, with no hesitation, no weirdness. I handed my son to her, and picked up this tiny baby from the changing table. As I offered my breast to her, she rooted and rubbed against it for a moment, and then latched and started nursing. I looked up to her mother, worried that she would feel offended by her baby nursing from another woman’s breast — but all I saw was relief as she saw her baby calming down. The baby wasn’t crying anymore, and neither was the mother. She held my baby as I nursed hers, and though I had feared that it would be weird, odd, or crossing a line of some sort — it didn’t feel like that at all. It felt like exactly the right thing to do.

I nursed the baby for a few minutes, and she dozed off. The mother told me her husband was waiting outside but had to head to the airport. The whole family was supposed to travel back to their home country, Egypt, on that day, but the mother and baby would have to stay behind for a few extra days because some of the paperwork was taking longer. I was worried about how the father would feel about a total stranger having just breastfed their infant baby — but he greeted me with a warm smile, took my hands in his and thanked me with sincere gratitude for helping his wife and their daughter. He asked what my son’s name was, and told me that according to the Muslim faith, our children were now milk siblings, brother and sister.

The father headed to the airport and I walked out with the mother, our babies in tow, to find formula. Then we sat on a bench and started talking about pregnancy, labor and motherhood. She told me how she felt guilty for not being able to breastfeed, and I tried to reassure her that given the stress she is under, it was no wonder nursing wasn’t a breeze to her. I encouraged her to be gentle to herself and to not stress about nursing right now, but just concentrate on getting herself and the baby back home safely. Once life got back to normal and she had family by her side, she could always focus more on nursing again. We talked about how our own expectations and those of others can sometimes feel so hard, even impossible, to meet, and how we fear criticism and judgment from others — but probably are our own worst critics. We talked about where we come from — Finland, Egypt, United States — and she told me about the challenges her society is facing, and how she wanted to give her daughter a better and safer life with more choices and opportunities. Before we parted ways, we exchanged numbers and have continued to keep in touch. Social media makes it easier to keep in contact with newfound friends — and siblings — across the world.

I’ve thought about our encounter and what I did since it happened. I’ve pondered over whether what I did was right, whether there was something odd or weird about it and whether I shouldn’t have even offered — but the more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that I would do it all again, exactly the same way. What happened between us was about helping a fellow mother, a fellow human being. It was about extending a hand when someone needed it; about seeing another mother as I would see myself, vulnerable and scared, tired and lost, exhausted and helpless. It was about choosing to see similarities before seeing differences — about doing what I thought to be the best, and only way, to help the mother and her baby in a chaotic, confusing and scary situation. There are endless articles and blogs about the mommy wars, about mothers pitted against each other over a million different things — but I believe there is more that unites us than there are things that divide us. At one point or another, we are all lost and scared — we all fear failing our babies, not being good enough mothers, not making the right choices. We fear judgment and criticism, and at times feel utterly alone and lost — but we don’t have to be alone, we don’t have to figure it all out on our own.

When we parted ways, my new Egyptian friend told me it was fate that brought us together. She said that our children would always be connected, and that she would never forget what I did for her. I will never forget our encounter either. Breastfeeding can do wonders, but even more powerful is our ability to help and support each other and lend a hand — or a breast — to a fellow mother, a fellow human, in need, even when they are total strangers to us. Maybe by learning to see our similarities before seeing our differences, we can all feel less alone in motherhood. Around the world, across borders and religions, despite ethnicity and race, mothers strive to achieve the same thing: a safe, healthy and happy life for their babies. If that isn’t something we can unite over, I don’t know what is. So when you meet a fellow mother, even if she is a stranger, ask her how she is. If she needs help, extend your hand. It doesn’t always take grand gestures to change this world into a better place. Sometimes, all that is needed is just a little bit of kindness.

Editor’s note: On the sharing of breast milk, the CDC notes: “HIV and other serious infectious diseases can be transmitted through breast milk. However, the risk of infection from a single bottle of breast milk, even if the mother is HIV positive, is extremely small. For women who do not have HIV or other serious infectious diseases, there is little risk to the child who receives her breast milk.”

Cutting Female Circumcision From Egyptian Culture

Written by C. Kott

Suhair al-Bata’a was once a 13 year-old Egyptian girl, described by her family as sweet and spirited. Today she lies in a tomb near the home she grew up in, after she died a year ago, while undergoing surgery for female genital mutilation (FGM).

Despite the fact that FGM was banned in 2008, it remains a common practice in Egypt. UNICEF reports that more than 90% of women in Egypt have undergone the procedure. This issue has the support of prominent political and religious groups.

FGM is perceived as an initiation into womanhood that defines a girl’s femininity and cleanses her of sexual impurity.

Individuals, activists and organizations hope that Suhair’s tragic death will create change for other girls. A landmark trial is underway with the potential to alter the face of Egyptian society.

Initially, Suhair’s family filed charges against the doctor who performed the operation. Later they dropped the charges, claiming Suhair was being treated for genital warts. Vengeance for Suhair might have ended there, had Reda al-Danbouki not intervened.

Human Rights Lawyer, Al Danbouki, Photo Credit: Al Danbouki
Human Rights Lawyer, al-Danbouki, Photo Credit: al-Danbouki

Al-Danbouki is an Egyptian human rights lawyer, as well as Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness. As an activist for women’s rights and supporter of women’s health, he joined with Equality Now and Egypt’s state-run National Population Council to press charges against Suhair’s father and the doctor responsible for her death.

Though this is the first trial of its kind – FGM has never before been prosecuted in Egypt – al-Danbouki believes this is the beginning of change though he knows the struggle to ratify the practice will continue.

“People need to be educated more about it,” he says, “and the government needs to be pushed politically so they will take real action.” -al-Danbouki

Education campaigns have helped dozens of villages to become “FGM free.”

Al-Danbouki’s Women’s Center is leading the movement in education, fighting to give women the information they need to change their own lives.

A few months ago, following his successful partnership with Equality Now, al-Danbouki reached out to Honor Diaries, a women’s rights movement centered around the film by the same name, that breaks the silence on ‘honor violence’ against women and girls, seeking to put a stop to the human rights abuses they suffer.

Photo Credit: Honor Diaries
Photo Credit: Honor Diaries

Al-Danbouki contacted Honor Diaries through their Arabic Facebook page and in June, he coordinated the first major global screening of Honor Diaries in Arabic. The event, held in the city of Aga, north of Cairo, was a groundbreaking success, educating almost 70 women on the issues proliferated in cultures of honor.

The responses to the film were mixed. Some felt the film encouraged wives to rebel against their husbands, but many women were inspired, and declared a desire for more education so they could help the women in their communities.

The film’s goals go beyond the audiences affirmations. The real victory accomplished during the screening was creating awareness and a platform for conversation around these important, life-changing issues. The film sparked an intense discussion about violence against women, FGM, child marriage, honor crimes, the meaning of the word ‘honor’ in Middle Eastern culture and, most importantly, what can be done about these problems.

Al-Danbouki is birthing advocates and educators, and his success has inspired him to spread this medium of education further. The event was extensively and positively reported by local media, who quote al-Danbouki saying he plans to screen the film across Egypt, starting during Ramadan at the end of June, and put an end to these harmful practices.

Visit the Honor Diaries website to find out how you can be a part of this movement to change the lives of millions of women living under oppressive systems of honor.

Cover Photo Credit: DFATD/MAECD, ACDI/CIDA/David Barbour, Flickr Creative Commons

FGM Fight turns legal in Egypt

In 2012, Unite to End Violence against Women campaign declared the 25th of every month Orange Day. For two years, individuals, organizations, activists, men, women and girls have been raising their voices to say no to violence.

Women and girls experience violence in war and conflict settings, in their homes and at the hands of strangers. Sexual assault, female genital mutilation, early marriage and forced prostitution are some of the atrocities that girls and women face on a daily basis.

Will the violence stop?

Is there justice for women and girls?

Justice may become a reality for some girls in Egypt. In a tragic, landmark case, Raslan Fadl, a medical practioner, is scheduled to be tried for the death of thirteen year old Sohair al-Bata’a. The death was reportedly the result of an allergic reaction to penicillin. However, the primary procedure she had undergone was female genital mutilation.The existence of the trial is as encouraging as Sohair’s case is heartbreaking.

This is the first time a doctor will be prosecuted for carrying out female genital mutilation in Egypt.

Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is still widely practiced, despite international condemnation. Typically carried out before puberty, sometimes on infant girls, it involves cutting women’s sexual organs (usually with a razor or knife). Female genital excision refers specifically to the removal of the clitoris and labia minora. The practice is not done out of cruelty or as punishment, but is linked to deeply entrenched cultural beliefs which hold that removing the sexual organs purifies an individual and discourages adultery by preventing pleasure from sexual activity. The practice has both psychological and long-term effects on women’s health.

Despite the practice being banned by the government and publicized as harmful, culture has yet to catch up with the law. As in many places, in rural Egypt, the traditions are stronger in the more neglected, less educated areas (such as in villages like Sohair’s) where female genital excision is still commonly accepted and practiced. A family member of Soheir’s was quoted in the LA Times as saying, “She didn’t want it. But she understood she did not have anything to say about it.”

Bata’a’s father has not spoken to press, but it has been reported that her older sister also underwent the procedure and that societal pressure to continue the practice is not expected to abate. Fadl himself has said to press that he is confident he will be cleared, as he was carrying out the procedure at the girl’s parents request.

Though the trial is encouraging, and legislation has stated it is attemping to use Fadl as an example of a lack of tolerance for the practice, activists believe there is much work to be done within the communities themselves. Speaking to The Guardian, a representative for the activist group Equality Now emphasized that the real problem is not with the individual doctors or family members, but with the beliefs of gender inequality that still hold sway in many rural communities.

What can you do on #OrangeDay?


Cover Photo Credit: Nasser Nouri, Flickr Creative Commons


Say No: Unite to End Violence Against Women

Photo Courtesy: DFID
Photo Courtesy: DFID, Creative Commons

Today is the International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women. All over the world, women, men and children are taking a stand to declare that women deserve to live free from all forms of violence. As the world comes together to show support for women, the harsh reality is that one in three will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. This happens in all communities, both rural and urban. Violence against women occurs in schools, in homes, churches, and on street corners across the globe. No woman is immune to the threat of violence.

This must STOP.

In 2009, UN Women launched the Say NO-Unite campaign. The campaign engages people from all walks of life to focus on raising awareness and making public declarations to end violence against women. The growing global coalition unites individuals, governments, organizations and the private sector with the common goal to fight violence against women and girls. Say NO-Unite utilizes both on the ground engagement as well as new media to rally communities and nations. To date, over 5 million people have signed a petition to make ending violence against women a global priority.

Beginning today until December 10th, in coordination with 16 days of Activism, people in villages, towns and cities across the world will be displaying the color orange as a symbol  to end violence against women and girls.

In Egypt, campaigns calling for an end to violence have begun to engage students at universities. Recently, girls took part in a bike ride to raise awareness about sexual violence. Other students have created human chains and bumper sticker campaigns to raise awareness about sexual harassment. In Rwanda, a group of men started an organization called the Rwandan Men’s Resource Center (RWAMREC). RWAMREC initiated a campaign to train men to change negative and violent behavior. The campaign participants meet people at the local level to discuss gender-based violence. To date, over 3,000 local leaders have been trained.

As a young woman with a passion for fighting injustice and empowering women, these stories inspire me. Over the past several years, I have had incredible opportunities to sit, listen and learn from many courageous women. As I have had the opportunity to work with women and girls in the United States, Africa and India, I think about stories like Xian who was trafficked from China to New York City or Rasha in India who suffered extreme abuse at the hands of family and strangers. Marble floors, rural villages, mud huts, comfortable couches, airplanes, offices—it is within these varied scenes that stories of rape, exploitation, and extreme abuse take place.

It is their stories that propel me to action.

Today I stand up and say NO for Xian and Rasha. I say NO for mothers, friends, daughters and women all over the world who suffer and have suffered from violence. I say NO because I am a woman who believes that all women should be free to live without fear.

Today I wear orange because…

“Women and girls deserve to live free from violence.”

Why will you wear orange?

Tweet Us @GirlsGlobe

Follow the campaign on Twitter @SayNO_UNiTE and 16 Days of Activism.

Cover Photo Credit: Gigi Ibrahim, Creative Commons

Mapping FGM/C

To follow-up on our February theme, female genital mutilation/cutting, Girls’ Globe would like to show some infographics that we came across. The below map by the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme against FGM/C shows the progress being made in eliminating female genital mutilation/cutting.

The map shows the prevalence of FGM/C among women aged 15-49, with the highest rates (90-100 %) in Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. However, rates are dropping. In Egypt rates dropped over 6 % in 8 years. This isn’t a lot, but the numbers are a few years old. What seems hopeful is the change between generations. Young women, aged 15-19, in Egypt are less likely to be mutilated/cut than women aged 40-44. This does indicate that the trend is going in the right direction, but it also shows that we are far from done with fighting this life-threatening practice.

Did you see Amnesty’s video on FGM/C? The video highlights the spread of FGM/C throughout the world. It is not only practiced in the countries showed on the above map. The graph above also indicates a few countries where FGM/C is practiced among immigrant communities, including Sweden and Norway, two of the countries with the highest gender equality in the world.

No matter where you live, we all have a part to play in creating awareness of the dangerous consequences of this practice.

Below is a video about the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme. It is a few years old, but it highlights the challenges as well as the progress being made.

During the past two weeks the UN Commission on the Status of Women has taken place in New York City, and a first-ever resolution on eliminating FGM/C has been discussed by all UN Member States. Let us await the results during the coming days, and hope that our leaders take the right decision to prioritize the lives of girls and women.

Cause of death: Being a woman

One out of three women are subject to violence sometime during their lifetime.

Three journalists decided to investigate violence against women, researching the situations for women in ten different countries. There are many reasons used as explanations for violence against women, such as culture and religion, but these journalists say that “the real reasons are power and control”.

The project, named Cause of Death: Woman, share the voice of women who have survived the violence in these different countries, the stories of women who have lost their lives to gender based violence. They also raise awareness of women and organizations working to make a change.

Girls’ Globe believes in this movement. Let’s stand together to support survivors and work towards eliminating violence against women and break the invisible chains of power and control.

The Cause of Death: Woman page was launched today, so be sure to go in and check it out, share it and follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook.

Break the silence and eliminate these patterns of violence!