UN Experts Call for Action on Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes

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.

3 Things I Learned at the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference

In September, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt a new set of development goals, which will shape our path to a better future over the next 15 years. At the same time, the UN Secretary-General launched the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s, and Adolescents’ Health, and in the wake of this unprecedented momentum the very first Global Maternal Newborn Health (GMNH) Conference took place in Mexico City.

Researchers, implementors, policymakers and donors came together to discuss, strategize, collaborate and learn. Representatives from 418 organisations across 74 countries heard inspiring and often very moving stories from speakers and panel members with one uniting passion; improving the health of women and children worldwide.

At a gathering of this scale, and at a moment in history so pivotal, the opportunity to gain new knowledge was vast.  Here are 3 things I learned from the GMNH Conference:

  1. FAIL is not a 4 letter word – it’s First Attempt in Learning

Despite the progress made during the Millennium Development Goals, it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of the gravity of the task ahead. The health of women and children links intrinsically with every single other element of the global development agenda and our unacceptable rates of maternal and newborn mortality drastically impede the realization of healthy and sustainable societies. Of course, let’s always make sure that we celebrate success, but let’s also be willing to acknowledge and learn from failure. As Dr Priya Agrawal told us – “leaning in to and learning from failure can be transformative in improving maternal and newborn health outcomes”.

  1. Monitoring, evaluation and accountability lie at the heart of high quality care

Save the Children’s Robert Clay put it simply: “we need better data to make better decisions for women and babies”. As we tackle these ambitious new goals we need to streamline our measurement and data so that the right information is available and accessible to the right people, to allow for real change to take place for families, communities and societies. Community-led and people-driven monitoring and evaluation can help to ensure that no woman, baby or child is left behind along the way.

  1. Young people can be powerful advocates for maternal and newborn health

Along with the positive momentum around the SDGs has come another welcome shift in attitudes; an increasing awareness of the role young people play, and have the potential to play, in the creation of a better and fairer world. There’s a growing realisation that young people can act as catalysts for behaviour change, and that as experts on the on the issues that affect them, their voices cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, maternal health issues too often equate to adolescent health issues, and so young people’s perspectives on health systems are indispensable. Desire to see genuine change commitment to learning, questioning and investigating – these are the qualities to which youth add enthusiasm and passion. They are the qualities which make young people not only beneficial but essential to the maternal and newborn health conversation.

Cover photo: Eleanor Gall interviewing Katja Iversen, CEO, Women Deliver at the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference

SDG 7: Access To Energy Can Lead To Gender Equity

At this time last year, the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was being analyzed as their 15-year stretch was coming to a close. As I contribute to the Girls’ Globe coverage of the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) this year, I think back on an article I wrote about MDG 4: Reduction of child mortality.

​The MDGs were launched in 2000, and projected to be accomplished by 2015. Last year, I wrote about how we failed to meet the targets for MDG 4 . The UN update on MDG 4 explained that, “Despite determined global progress in reducing child deaths, an increasing proportion of child deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. Four out of every five deaths of children under age five occur in these regions.”

A few questions arose for me upon hearing about the roll out of the SDGs: “Are we just throwing the MDGs by the wayside?” and “Will the SDGs be treated in the same way; if they fail, they will be forgotten in 2030?”

Through reading about the SDGs via Girls’ Globe  and other media outlets, I found that the SDGs are not forgetting the MDGs, but learning from them and reevaluating them to include what is relevant now. In June 2012, the Rio+20 Conference, began developing the SDGs, and was dedicated to continuing the momentum of MDGs through the SDGs.

There a few fundamental differences between the SDGs and the MDGs. First, the SDGs are universal, meaning “all countries – as well as aid agencies, businesses and the public, working in collaborative partnership – will implement this bold agenda”.

Additionally, the SDGs are “zero goals”, which means that unlike the MDGs that sought to get us half way to the goal of ending poverty and hunger, the SDGs are designed to completely eradicate poverty and hunger. World Vision mentions that a, “deliberate effort will be required… to reach those living on the extreme margins of society.”

One good example of how the SDGs include items that should be prioritized in 2015 is through looking at SDG 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Access to energy was not covered by the MDGs previously.

We know what it is like to experience a power outage in the US: food may go bad, lights are out, heat or AC is off, and of course no Netflix. Losing energy means losing productivity or leisure time, but in brief and rare instances it is a tolerable annoyance. In other places a lack of energy can have a significant impact on someone’s life. Lack of energy access is also a highly gendered problem, that disproportionately affects the lives and well-being of girls and women.

When I was in South Africa in 2011, I learned that many people rely on generators because power outages are common, and those who have generators are those who can afford them. This economic disparity affects opportunities to succeed or move out of poverty. When you lack energy, you or your children may not have a place to do homework or work after dark, lack well-lite and safe access to bathrooms located outdoors, and have no method to store or cook food.

An article from The Atlantic eloquently summarizes how women’s empowerment and access to energy are linked.

“Empowering women within those communities (lacking energy) to be more efficient in their household duties, make further gains in education, enter the workforce, and start businesses. Not only will (access to energy) provide opportunities for those often disenfranchised, but it will also help accelerate economic growth in developing countries… Access to energy could spur 50 percent of a labor force to be more productive and more engaged. A gender lens approach to energy access programs can be beneficial all the way around—for women, for local communities, and for emerging nations.”

As the energy gap closes, opportunities for women are likely to increase. Because women are the ones typically responsible for household duties in many nations, increased efficiency in the home (i.e. a place to store food or a washing machine) reduces time constraints and provides new opportunities for women to earn an income outside the home. Although there are other underlying issues involved with women being restricted by their household responsibilities, improving economic opportunities for women will help them gain more power in their household, and hopefully lead to more equitable expectations of men and women in their communities.

Unfortunately, a report by Development Progress projects that SDG 7 will not be reached by 2030. The report expects East and South Asia and Latin America to achieve the goal, however, the number of people without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to increase by 2030.

The SDG Fund is one mechanism created to work as a bridge from the MDGs to the SDGs, and alongside governments, private sector, activists, and individuals, will work towards the realization of the new agenda.  We can help ensure that these goals are reached through putting pressure on the decision makers and key actors at local and global levels to focus on improving communication and infrastructures especially in places of extreme poverty. The inception of the SDGs is an exciting and hopeful time, but also a time to learn from the past so we can make a bigger impact this time around.

Illustrations for the SDG campaign have been made for Girls’ Globe by artist Elina Tuomi.

Healthy Mothers and Midwives: Agents of Positive Change

Maternal mortality is a growing global concern. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal 5, aims to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters and achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015. The United Nations reports that while the level of maternal mortality worldwide has declined by 47% over the past two decades, the maternal mortality ratio in developing regions remains 15 times higher than in developed regions.


According to the World Health Organization in 2013, 289,000 women died following pregnancy and childbirth, with most of these preventable deaths occurring in low-resource settings. Many of these women lack access to a skilled midwife and emergency obstetric care. In countries where maternal mortality rates are high, mothers and children often also lack access to proper nutrition, water, sanitation, and education.

Access to trained midwives and proper care for women during childbirth must be leveraged to ensure mothers and their babies are healthy.

The positive outcomes associated with improved maternal health, catalyzed by midwives and skilled birth attendants, are unrivaled. Midwives provide a bedrock of support for women and families during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. These amazing women and men play a crucial role in maintaining and improving maternal health, facilitating childbirth, and empowering women to make informed decisions about their healthcare. The benefits of midwifery and maternal health contribute to economies – healthier mothers achieve greater productivity in their jobs, which positively drives economic growth. In addition, when mothers gain knowledge about maternal health, the availability of health services and the importance of proper nutrition and hygiene, their children are healthier and child mortality is reduced.

Unless a country has healthy mothers, it will be unable to break the perpetual cycles of poverty and put an end to the marginalized status of women and girls.

Girls’ Globe’s featured organizations including Save the Children, Mujeres Aliadas A.CCleanBirth and the Edna Adan Hospital Foundation are dedicated to improving maternal health through education and health-centered solutions.

Save the Children’s efforts to fortify community-based health systems in over 20 countries has equipped local women and midwives in Afghanistan with the health training needed to offer life saving services to mothers, children and families. Mujeres Aliadas advances the lives of women in Mexico in a two-fold way – by giving  them  reproductive health and educational services based on professional midwifery models and developing a network that encourages women to advocate for their health rights.

CleanBirth strives to prevent the deaths of mothers and babies in Laos by providing clean birth kits, training nurses, midwives, and providing funding for training village volunteers who educate their community about safe births. The Edna Adan Hospital Foundation supports and advocates for the Edna Adan Hospital in Somaliland. The Edna Adan Hospital Foundation’s goal is to provide women in Somaliland the opportunity for healthy pregnancies and safe childbirth, through increasing women’s access to skilled public health professionals, revamping healthcare facilities, educating midwives, and ending the practice of female genital mutilation.

The results and impact of the work of our featured organizations is far reaching. When education, midwifery training, healthcare and economic advancement are properly harnessed the future of improving maternal health in developing countries becomes brighter.

Cover Photo Credit: Stephen von Malortie

Women Who Inspire: Kirthi in India

Kirthi 1
Kirthi Jayakumar

I first came into contact with Kirthi Jayakumar as a fellow UN volunteer when she began work as my editor. Even though we worked together remotely, as she is based in India, I was struck by her exuberance, warmth, passion and consistency. As we continued to work together, I realized Kirthi’s personal merits were only matched by her professional achievements. A lawyer, a writer and an activist, Kirthi not only volunteers her time to multiple organizations, but is the founder of The Red Elephant Foundation, won the U.S. Presidential Award in 2012 and the UN Volunteer award two consecutive years running (2012 and 2013). Following is a Q&A with Kirthi herself. 

Q: What age did you start getting involved in activism and why?

I think I was maybe subconsciously an activist always, because you only end up pursuing what comes most naturally to you. Of course, I wasn’t the child that held placards and called out on malpractices, but I was cause driven. I think that came from my parents because they always taught my brother and me to give, to be unconditional and to be compassionate to people around us. It was never a guilt-trip narrative of underprivileged-privileged, but rather about empathy and care for everyone we met. I remember my mother always telling me to think twice before being harsh, angered, rude or judgmental – because no matter what, everyone has their own stories, worries and problems. 

Q: What would you consider your main causes?

Honestly, I have no idea! I would say Gender, or perhaps War, but I wouldn’t be saying enough.

Q: Can you describe your most rewarding moment in work so far?

To be able to do this, to be able to stand for what I believe in is a reward in itself.

The biggest reward I want, though, is a Utopic vision that may or may not come true while I’m alive – my work becoming redundant. I want a time to come when campaigning for equality won’t be necessary at all!

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face? 

I reckon my greatest challenges have been resistance from the people I work with, or the people connected to those I work with: men who don’t want the women in their family to be economically/educationally empowered, or social constructs that tend to perceive women as a burden, or social constructs that look at men and boys as perpetrators, or even the ascription of victim-hood without considering the need for respectfulness.

Q: What keeps you going when you get discouraged by setbacks?

I get discouraged all the time with setbacks – but only enough discouragement so that it becomes the springboard for action. 

Q: Can you describe the state of rights for girls and women in your country?

In one word: Unsatisfactory. There are too many instances of rape and sexual violence that one hears of – and it’s disheartening that we don’t have any space whatsoever for the right kind of narratives to unfold. Our laws are not adequate, and what we have in place is seldom enforced. We need to shift mindsets and attitudes towards both, men and women – and it’s disheartening to note that we’re always looking at brutality and violence as an answer or a response mechanism. We are also depressingly clueless when it comes to responding to something wrong happening under our noses – which is quite true of the whole world – vigilantism needs to grow.

Q: What hope do you have for girls and women, either in your country or internationally, in the future?

Plenty of hope for a bright future, of course – but the key to that is in each of our hands – we have it in us to be the change we want to see.

Q: What words of advice would you give to younger girls?

As a first step, be confident about who you are. You are a somebody, and a somebody that counts. It is a crime to yourself if you try to be someone else – because the world is deprived of a great person in the process.

You can read Kirthi’s personal blog or her law journal.


*Featured image (listed under Creative Commons) courtesy of Flickr user Dylan Walters.

The Harsh Reality for Women and Girls in Syria

If there is one thing we know about Syria it is women, girls, youth and their families have suffered far too much for too long,” -UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

As the civil war in Syria continues, the world holds its breath waiting to hear the final decision from the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress on whether or not to launch a missile strike in Syria. Many questions remain unanswered; the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been internationally deliberated with tragic testimonies, graphic images and video footage screened across the internet and mainstream media. In the debate over the use of chemical weapons, one of my favourite political pundits Tony Benn stated,

I am totally opposed to intervening in Syria, it would lead to a Middle East war. Chemicals are just another weapon that kill people. Don’t bombs kill people? Don’t ‘Cruise Missiles’ kill people? If America and Britain defy the UN then it will lead to a greater conflict.”

The U.S. Senate drafted a resolution that permits U.S. President Obama to order a “limited and tailored” military mission against Syria, as long as it does not exceed 90 days and involves no U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations. The President will now have to pass the resolution by way of chamber votes in Congress.

??????)?While politicians give their solutions and verdicts over an intervention in Syria, millions of Syrian refugees live in refugee camps across the Middle East and remain vulnerable and uncertain of their future. It is now estimated that, since the civil war began back in March 2011, 2 million Syrian people are currently displaced and have fled the country – the majority of whom are women and children. Furthermore, within Syria itself, over 4 million people remain displaced, forced from their homes due to violent conflict. In a joint statement earlier this week, the foreign ministers from Iraq, Jordan and Turkey in addition to Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urgently appealed for greater international support for the refugee crisis.

To paraphrase former British Parliamentarian Tony Benn, bombs and missiles kill people therefore increasing the killing will only lead to greater conflict across the whole region. What is really needed now is humanitarian support as the neighbouring countries struggle to manage the increasing number of refugees entering their borders.

An average of almost 5,000 Syrians flee into neighbouring countries every day, in total some 716,000 refugees alone have entered Lebanon. Of the 2 million Syrian refugees currently seeking safety, shelter, food and medical care, over half are children, three-quarters of whom are under the age of 11. Hence, instead of launching a missile strike on Syria, shouldn’t the international community be providing humanitarian aid and assistance to aid agencies in Syria and its neighbouring countries experiencing the influx of refugees? The UN says the conflict in Syria has resulted in the worst refugee crisis for 20 years, with numbers not seen since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????Women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Furthermore, young Syrian refugee women and girls also face a tragic future, as multiple reports have concluded that child marriage, a human rights violation, is particularly prevalent among refugee camp families. The negative impact of child marriage in any situation means that girls become more vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, slavery, HIV and AIDs, maternal mortality and poverty. Erica Hall, World Vision Senior Child Rights Adviser stated:

Parents will feel incredibly vulnerable and may believe that a husband will be able to protect their daughter from these threats, and allow them to better provide for their remaining children, too.”

Shockingly, aid workers in refugee camps are not exempt from this behavior as they have been identified as perpetrators seeking sexual favours in return for help. There is little or no protection at all from such sexual assaults. With nowhere to turn, no support or money to feed their children, many women are forced into prostitution as a mode of survival, putting themselves into great danger of violence and HIV.

The reports and testimonies of sexual violence from pregnant women, women with disabilities, women living with fatal diseases, women seeking emergency medical care and so on are seemingly endless. As politicians discuss their ‘interventions,’ women, girls, men and boys are dying and struggling to keep hope alive.

All images courtesy of Flickr’s Syria Freedom Creative Commons.