Monday, July 21, 2008

The right to feed a baby in public

Breastfeeding picnics are taking place at various locations in the UK today (Monday 21 July 2008) to celebrate and assert a mother's right to feed her child in public - and to call for better and clearer protection of that right. See:

Although certain rights may seem self evident, in terms of national and international law they have to be written, or derived from other rights that are written. In practical terms, they have to be fought for, more often than not. So the Magna Carta established rights such as habeus corpus (the right not to be imprisoned without just cause) in the UK and made the King subject to the rule of law following a confrontation between King John and various land owners or Barons. The right of leaders to vote for their leaders has been a continual process of struggle, culminating in the UK with women gaining the right to vote through the effots of the sufragettes. The right to be free was won by those enslaved and their supporter in a protracted struggle, though, nonetheless, slavery continues as has been documented in the chocolate industry, for example, where campaigners have to battle still for Nestlé and other companies to ensure that child slaves are not used in producing their cocoa.

So it is with the right to feed a child, which has been infringed repeatedly. The right for a child to receive adequate nutrition already exists in international law. Dr. Arun Gupta explains this in his chapter on breastfeeding in the book ´Global Obligations for the Right to Food´, available from Baby Milk Action.

Note that while the following human rights provisions refer to breastfeeding, they also refer more broadly to nutrition and so also apply to mothers or other carers feeding with formula. The key instruments are the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which include the following:

Infants have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Art. 24(1) CRC, Art. 12(1) ICESCR and to adequate nutritious food. Art. 24(2)(c) CRC, Art. 11(1) ICESCR.

Mothers have a right to education and SUPPORT in the use of basic knowledge of child health and nutrition, the advantages of breastfeeding. CRC 24.2(e) CRC.

State Parties are OBLIGED to ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child. Art. 6(2) CRC.

Take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to implement this right. Art. 27(3) CRC.

The Innocenti Declaration, endorsed by the World Health Assembly, and the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, adopted by the Assembly give concrete actions deriving from these rights.

Human rights instruments, such as these conventions, put obligations on governments to deliver and protect these rights. They have to report to the United Nations system on how they are doing. Interestingly, the UK government has flagged up Scotland´s Breastfeeding etc. bill in its report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is to be scrutinised in September. The bill protects a mothers right to feed a child of up to two years of age with milk in a public place. Campaigners are calling for a similar law - better, one with no age limit - at the breastfeeding picnics taking place today.

Without a commitment to action to protect mothers and babies across the UK the government is setting itself up for embarassment before the Committee, where it is already due to be grilled over its failure to implement the marketing requirements for baby foods. See:

A child´s right to adequate nutritious food is not being protected if a mother is prevented from feeding a hungry baby due to the prejudices of others. Just last week, McDonald´s apologised after a mother was asked to stop breastfeeding her child. She came back with friends and staged a protest. The mother said: ´I had a proper maternity top on which is designed for breastfeeding so no one could see anything.´ See:

Certainly some people feel uncomfortable even with discreet breastfeeding taking place. But should their discomfort come before the well-being of mothers and babies, just because in their view it is not the ´done thing´ to breastfeed in public? No, is the answer. The government has an obligation to protect the mothers and babies.

The UK government has made rather a mess of trying to protect this right in legislation. As I reported here recently, it was suggesting in response to a petition on the 10 Downing Street website that mothers were only protected feeding infants up to 6 months of age. See:

Barry Durdant-Hollamby was one of those taking issue with the government over this and, following his discussion with the Cabinet Office, the response to the petition has been changed to read:

---extract from government response to petition calling for protection for breastfeeding in public

Some people seem to think that women can be arrested or charged for indecency for breastfeeding in public - this is wrong. There isn't, and never has been, any reason for a women not to breastfeed while on the street or in public.

In addition, there is already protection for women who are breastfeeding, whatever the age of the baby, wherever goods and services are provided - for example in shops, cafes, on buses etc. This is within existing sex discrimination law. There is also added protection under the grounds of 'maternity', so that there is even stronger protection for the first six months. The Equality Bill will make it explicit that maternity discrimination includes 'breastfeeding', so that women can be completely confident in the knowledge that the law is on their side if they want to breastfeed while going about their day-to-day business, without having to face the humiliation of for example being asked to leave a cafe by the owner.

---extract ends

Deputy Minister for Women, Barbara Follett was prompted to issue a statement, quoted by Barry, saying:

---Barbara Follett quote
Mothers have to be confident that they can breastfeed their infants in a café, restaurant or shop without the embarrassment of having the owner ask them to stop. This type of discrimination has in fact been unlawful for more than thirty years, and the mother - with a baby of any age - could challenge the owner under the Sex Discrimination Act.
---quote ends

She also admits:

---Barbara Follett quote
The law is not as clear as it could be. People are unsure of their rights and their responsibilities in this area. Some people also think that women can be charged with indecency for breastfeeding in a public place. This is utter nonsense and completely wrong.
---quote ends

Confusion arises because when complaints are made about a mother feeding a child, too often it is the mother who is censured, rather than the person making the complaint.

In addition, the Single Equality Bill, currently going through Parliament, is, according to statements made about it, seeking to protect breastfeeding in premises accessible to the public. At the draft stage there was no mention of breastfeeding, though government press statements led on supposed protection deriving from protection of ´maternity´ which, it was said, would include mothers breastfeeding children up to one year of age. More recent reports have suggested this will be babies up to 6 months of age. See:

At the consultation stage we called for breastfeeding to be mentioned explicitly with no age limit. There needs to be consistency and no confusing message that could give some the idea they have the right to stop mothers feeding babies over 6 months of age.

Campaigners organising the breastfeeding picnics agree that the present situation lacks clarity and are unimpressed by the claim that protection has existed for the past 30 years under sex discrimination legislation. See:

On her blog, Morgan Gallagher is highlighting the campaigners call for similar protection in the rest of the UK to that which exists in Scotland. The law there has gained a high public profile and, in a country where breastfeeding rates are particularly low and public breastfeeding is seen by some as against tradition, people know that they are in the wrong if they try to stop a mother feeding her child. Laws are not the whole of the story, but they do send a message and, if necessary, can be enforced.

The Convention of the Rights of the Child calls for states to take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. Art. 24(3) CRC. If it is traditional to berate women for breastfeeding or to push them into the toilet, then action should be taken by the state.

Some may balk at the suggestion. There is something quite ingrained in some people against breastfeeding in public. While the fact that some people may find it difficult to change their view should be understood, their discomfort doesn´t trump the rights of mothers and babies.

Just as those who have a deep-seated dislike of people of different race, cannot put their dislike above the right of people not to be discriminated against. Or men who think they are more deserving because of their sex, cannot put this conceit above the right of equal treatment.

We can make our societies better. It is our right.

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