Cape Town - Women who breast-feed in public could soon be protected from discrimination by law. A group of women is calling for legislation that will protect them from discrimination and shaming for nursing their babies in public.
And they’ve got the attention and support of the minister of health.
The social movement of more than 700 women across the country, which calls itself Normalise Public Breast-feeding in SA (NPBSA), alleges that while it is not illegal to breast-feed babies in public in the country, the reality is that many mothers are scared and ashamed of doing so due to the threat of being mocked and shamed by society.
This has forced many mothers to breast-feed their children out of the public eye; often in unhygienic settings like bathrooms and toilets, and many weaned their babies too soon in a bid to avoid stares.
In a proposed draft bill called the Breast-feeding and Related Matters Bill, submitted to the office of Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, they propose that it becomes an offence to interfere with, or stop a woman from breast-feeding a child in a public place.
Joe Maila, spokesman for Motsoaledi, welcomed the campaign, saying that the ministry was in support of any call that promoted breast-feeding as “this form of feeding saves lives”.
He lambasted critics of breast-feeding: “The nation should be angry and be ashamed of those people who are discouraging mothers to breast-feed their babies.
“We welcome the proposal and we will look at it and see if it’s something that needs to be pursued further. As government, we fully support breast-feeding as it has been proven as one of the interventions that will reduce this country’s infant mortality… it is the way to go. I think criticism of public breast-feeding is unwarranted and absurd,” he said.
This week, a Rustenburg mother, Sizile Makola expressed outrage at people who opposed public breast-feeding after she was recently told by a private hospital to breast-feed behind a curtain to avoid upsetting other patients.
According to the proposed bill – which has been drafted by an international human rights and constitutional lawyer – interfering with breast-feeding would include placing limitations on certain areas or asking women to shield themselves from prying eyes.
The lawyer who helped draft the bill, Helen Ilitha, was instrumental in a Scottish campaign that led to discrimination of women who were nursing in public being criminalised.
Anél Olsson, one of the founders of the group, started campaigning for public breast-feeding three months ago. She said the group of diverse middle class women was organised following the “brutal affront by the media” about public breast-feeding.
Olsson said just as many had internalised racism and sexism, women had also “internalised the patriarchal construct that a breast was only welcome when it promised sex”.
She said in many public places including restaurants, shopping malls and public gatherings, women were “actively harassed and told to leave or cover up” simply because they were breast-feeding their babies.
“Personally, I’ve been down that road myself. I was too embarrassed to breast-feed my first baby in public because of this constant harassment. I would be told to go to a toilet to breast-feed him,” she said.
“They’re only nipples; everyone has them”
So why the big fuss over whether or not women breast-feed in public? Some people the Cape Argus spoke to still feel offended when a woman “nurses” in public.
However, the majority of Capetonians we spoke to feel women should have the freedom to breast-feed whenever and wherever their children’s needs may arise.
Jaen Adams said asking a woman to breast-feed in a restroom would “be like ordering a steak and then being told to go and eat it in the bathroom”.
Jade Johnson felt that people couldn’t feel offended by a woman breast-feeding when they put their “assets on display in skimpy outfits themselves”.
GS Endelani Banda (@real_endelani) tweeted that “breast-feeding has nothing to do with the public, some of the laws implemented are too harsh”, while Bill Rogers (@BroBillRogers) said: “The female human nipple should enjoy the same rights of exposure as the male whether breast-feeding or not.”
Wilma Newhoudt (@newhoudt) felt that “mothers should be free to breast-feed anywhere. I was a breast-feeding mom. Proud of that”.
The group of women calling for legislation to be put in place preventing the discrimination of women who breast-feed in public has received support on the Cape Argus’s social network, with Florence Reddy saying she is “all for it”.
Many feel that women should be allowed to nurse in public without discrimination provided they “cover up”.