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Rethinking narratives on breastfeeding in public spaces

Every so often, there is an uproar about a mother who has been told to cover up or move away from a public area while they are breastfeeding. Breastfeeding mothers, like any other women, are human beings and have an absolute right to access public spaces while embracing all significant aspects of their personhood. Yet, the lived realities of these mothers are still marked by inequality and lack of autonomy.


Through the work we do at FIDA Uganda, I have been reflecting on the challenges that prevent women who choose to breastfeed from doing so exclusively, and for as long as they want or even need to and in places they would like to do this.


We know that breastfeeding has a long list of benefits and is the preference of many women, yet the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding of infants that are five months and younger is only 42.8% in Uganda. So, what would prevent women with a preference for exclusively breastfeeding their infants from doing so?


The list of factors is long and discouraging: the absence of workplace policies and facilities that promote breastfeeding; the struggles of women in the informal sector who have no income if they take ‘maternity leave’; the lack of access to reliable information and good nutrition for women, especially women living with HIV and AIDS - which I wrote about here. But the worst reason on this list is that women are prevented or discouraged from breastfeeding by men who think they own and control their bodies.


First things first, breastfeeding decisions and experiences are complex and are related to such factors as a woman's health, the health of her baby, the needs of her other children and family members, the family's living conditions and other demands on the woman's time and energy. They all clearly demonstrate that, rather than being an individual act, breastfeeding is structured through prevailing sociocultural meanings and economic conditions.


The breastfeeding body is subject to subversive forms of regulation and control in contemporary society, and we see this dynamic play out in the way that women who breastfeed their babies in public face ostracism and abuse. A woman who spends long hours of her day using public transport or in another public place runs the risk of being shamed for ‘exposing her breasts in public’ if she dares to breastfeed her baby. Now, this is the same erratic society which gratuitously flaunts breasts in advertising and other media in a bid to make more sales.


This situation - where breasts are treated as objects of sexual gratification - is very influential in women's decision of whether to breastfeed especially in public. It is therefore not surprising that many women will feel uncomfortable to breastfeed in public, or in overcrowded living conditions. The result is that breastfeeding mothers are forced to opt for ‘privacy’ in ways that entail invisibility and exclusion from public spaces.


What is this bias against women breastfeeding in public rooted in? Could it have originated from the industrial revolution’s radical division of the work into two spheres: the domestic sphere- populated largely by women doing traditionally “domestic” activities like breastfeeding, and the public sphere - populated by men? Could it be because women who breastfeed in public dare to “step out”, do things that do not centre around pleasing men with their bodies in this “public arena”?


Woman in a market with a small child. Photo credit; NEF.


It is important that we ask, who decides when public nudity of women is acceptable?

It clearly depends on men’s ‘convenience’ and perceived control over women’s bodies. In the case of breastfeeding, once the breast’s role is no longer to sexually gratify or to be a source of pleasure but is used and controlled by women to nourish a child, it suddenly becomes something society should not see. Breastfeeding in public is therefore an issue of autonomy over women’s bodies; social and gender ownership of what is an ‘acceptable’ female body activity.


We also see a dynamic where women can direct scorn towards other women who choose to breastfeed in public spaces. This pushback is rooted in patriarchy. The disdain with which many women – often from the middle class and more socially conservative groups – direct at public breastfeeding can come from a feeling of shock at seeing less privileged or less conservative women daring to use their bodies in a manner that defies the norm. Such behaviour on the part of middle-class women can be rooted in the privilege enjoyed by women in formal employment, whose workplaces often allow for time off, and sometimes space to breastfeed. When a poor woman – often by necessity – breastfeeds her child in public, it can challenge the power structures and not just between men and women, but also between women themselves. I am reminded of what bell hooks says about patriarchy: it has no gender.


The ways in which breastfeeding women are treated in public spaces highlight three things for me: the pervasiveness of patriarchal expectations, and the way it pits women against each other; the fact that patriarchy is deeply embedded in a sociocultural context; and how patriarchy screams at a woman, simply because she is feeding her child with her own body, under her own authority and terms.


We must therefore start to think about breastfeeding as the business of everyone because women who breastfeed are contributing to the widely unrecognised and hugely gendered labour of raising children for the good of society. We must also support women to breastfeed whenever, wherever and also create support systems that make it easy for them.


This could begin with working on building public spaces designated for people who breastfeed that are comfortable and furnished. It is also important that corporate companies, like flower farms and factories, develop policies that promote breastfeeding. This must be backed by investing in setting-up the needed facilities and allowing time for women to step away from work in order to breastfeed. It is also high time that we think about and invest in socialised childcare for women in informal spaces like public-funded care centres.


Elizabeth Kemigisha

Advocacy manager at FIDA Uganda

(FIDA Uganda is a GRRIPP Africa partner)


Author bio

Elizabeth is a feminist lawyer with interest and expertise in human rights law, feminist theory and project management. She has a keen interest in social, economic and political inclusion of young people and women in development discourse in different societies.


She currently works with FIDA-Uganda as the Advocacy Manager and coordinator of the women economic justice programme. Her work focuses on addressing barriers to women involvement in economic activities; using feminist tools of analysis to examine and understand systemic injustices and their manifestations and, interrogating the intersection of economic exploitation and gender oppression.


She hopes that the work she does now will contribute towards challenging and dismantling structural inequalities and building economic policies and practices that are pro poor. In the past she has coordinated initiatives towards combating trafficking and commercial exploitation of children, sexual harassment in the work place and institutions of higher learning .

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