Picture: Pixabay
While there have been a few calls for more women candidates for South Africa’s elections next month despite the low numbers of women in top party list positions, there have been virtually no calls for more access for women voters.

Indeed, in the elections, the right to breastfeed and the right to vote are in direct conflict for a good proportion of the population due to the lack of facilities.

This year, the Independent Electoral Commission reports that 26744234 South Africans have registered to vote on May 8.

More than14million of these voters are women and 6.8million are under the age of 40. For those who have infants, their challenges include having to breastfeed their children in difficult environs.

It is encouraging that the 48 registered political parties who signed the Independent Electoral Commission’s Electoral Code of Conduct pledged to hold themselves accountable to promoting conditions that are conducive to free and fair elections and creating a climate of tolerance, free political campaigning, and open public debate.

Currently, many South African women must choose either to vote or to breastfeed. And breastfeeding is a critical issue in South Africa, particularly as only a third of infants receive breastmilk exclusively for the first six months, so we therefore need to encourage breastfeeding in all parts of society.

We should, however, also be asking them to pledge to create conditions conducive to full voter participation, especially for those who are often most overlooked, namely breastfeeding mothers.

And while the Electoral Code calls on parties to publicly condemn actions that may undermine the free and fair conduit of elections, it is not unrealistic to add that such condemnation be equally called for when women are discouraged from standing in queues for hours due to their need to breastfeed.

It is true that the IEC Electoral Act allows for special treatment for various groups including the frail and expectant mothers. Despite these assurances, the Act falls short of citing breastfeeding mothers in any of the special treatment categories. If we are to create a climate where breastfeeding is seen as a collective endeavour, then we must make breastfeeding mothers welcome in all circumstances.

Significant strides have been made globally in recognising breastfeeding mothers as capable political leaders. Last year, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - only the second female head of state to give birth while holding office - took her place at the UN General Assembly sittings with her three-month-old baby on her lap. Her decision was motivated by the fact that she was still breastfeeding.

In February, 2016, Australia lifted its ban on breastfeeding in parliament with the words of house leader Christopher Pyne: “No member, male or female, will ever be prevented from participating fully in the operation of the parliament by reason of having the care of a baby.”

But while the debate is important for women in positions of authority, it is equally important for the women who might wish to select their own leaders by casting their vote.

We need to make greater strides to ensure all women feel welcome at the polling stations come election day. One solution is to include breastfeeding women under the category of Special Voters which currently constitutes “infirm, disabled, elderly and pregnant people” who are too frail to queue for long periods and want to vote at home. 

Many mothers do not feel that they get support to breastfeed and may consequentially avoid doing so. Breastfeeding in public may attract unwanted, often negative attention. Women who would prefer to breastfeed privately outside the home may find it difficult as few public spaces or workplaces have breastfeeding facilities.

The right to breastfeed is a human right and all children are entitled to breastmilk. Women also have the right to choose to breastfeed. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) - of which South Africa is a signatory - says that states must ensure that women have access to “appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal care”. This includes the right to breastfeed. The same convention notes that women are also granted the right to vote “in all elections and public referenda”.

By providing facilities and, where necessary, special access for breastfeeding mothers and babies, the IEC will be upholding the rights of the mother and child. According to the UN Convention on the rights of the Child, “in all actions concerning children  the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”.

A 2018 study by Yosef Bhatti, et al on voter turnout of expectant and new mothers in Denmark and Finland indicated that women tend to avoid the polls during certain periods after childbirth. The numbers of women in late pregnancy who voted were not notably lower than the general population (unless the birth date was imminent). However, the rate at which women voted within the first 30 days after giving birth fell dramatically and, in Denmark in particular, most women voters only returned to the polls six months after childbirth.

Women should not be faced with the decision to either breastfeed or vote. 

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and the continuation of breastfeeding until two years. Currently the rate at which babies under six months are exclusively breastfed in South Africa is 32%, and continuation of breastfeeding at 18-23 months 19%.

The requirements for breastfeeding facilities at polling stations are not prohibitive. A breastfeeding friendly facility would be a clean space with room to sit down, privacy, and access to clean water. Women should not breastfeed in bathrooms because of the number of bacteria in these spaces.

May 8 will be a significant step forward in South Africa’s democratic journey. Unicef implores the IEC to take the necessary steps to make breastfeeding mothers feel included and help ensure that they are not left behind.

* Dr Alison Feeley is Nutrition Specialist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.