With a lot being said about 'exclusive breastfeeding' for the first six months for every child in India, and here in Kashmir, one would probably be led to believe that it was just a choice. And perhaps, it was just upto the mothers to make that choice. However, the entire system continues to turn a blind eye towards the biggest impediment in exclusive breastfeeding – lack of space.
Many studies carried about the practices of breastfeeding in Kashmir have revealed that although the information and understanding of the importance of exclusive breastfeeding has increased over time, the improvement in the knowledge set does not translate into behavioral change. One study published in Asian Journal of Agriculture and Food Science by Dr Yasmin Majid Khan and Dr Asmat Khan has shown that only 1 out of 2 children in Kashmir division are exclusively breastfed. Another study published in International Journal of Medical Science and Public Health titled 'Knowledge, attitude, and practices of postnatal mothers regarding breastfeeding: A cross-sectional study' has found nearly one out of every four babies is introduced to bottle in the first six months of life.
With more and more women working, a significant proportion of them out of the Government sector, the possibility of exclusive breastfeeding diminish. The maternity benefits that the law promises have remained confined to the Government sector only and by the provision of these, some working mothers are able to feed their children to some extent. However, even in this category, where a six months maternity leave is provided, exclusive breastfeeding does not happen due to a number of reasons.
Ghazala Shafi (name changed), a nurse by profession, introduced her baby to a bottle in the second month of his life. She is a staff nurse and had availed six month maternity leave. "I could opt for only breast milk but will my baby take the bottle when I resume work," she said. The fear of putting the infant through distress for want of breastfeed when she is not available was the primary reason for Ghazala to resort to bottle. She is not alone. The option of continuing with breastfeed after the mother has resumed work does not exist in Kashmir, or anywhere in most parts of India. Thus, even the mothers who can choose not to exclusively breastfeed the child so that the bottle remains a non-alien entity in the feeding routine.
None of the work places in Kashmir has a nursery, a safe and private space for mothers and their babies. Dr Shehnaz Taing, a renowned fertility specialist who retired as head of Gynaecology and Obstetrics at GMC Srinagar feels the Government's complacence towards the issue is criminal. "The law directs every organization to ensure spaces for mothers and their babies, so that we have better infant health and better maternal health, both physical and mental," she said.
She however expressed anguish over the fact that the Government, healthcare professionals, social activists and rights bodies have remained silent over this "gross deficiency". "When not a single hospital, where a majority of the workforce is women, or educational institute, or social welfare department, or even secretariat has taken a step to ensure that they create a space where a mother could take a small break and feed the child, what will they tell other organizations," she said.
"Women's rights are a very fancy topic and every day, a lot is spoken about these. However, a convenient omission is given to women's right and duty as a mother. She needs to be given privacy and all the support that is required to feed the baby she has given birth to," she said.
In the private and unorganized sector in Kashmir, breastfeeding is a far-fetched dream for workers. Most workers have no access to maternity leave and that leaves them with no choice. "They need to choose between employment and lactation often," said Humera Shafi, a private teacher by profession. She said none of the coworkers, including her, were provided any paid leave during her child bearing process and as a result, most of them were forced to resume work within three months of delivering. "Although I know how exclusive breastfeeding is important it is for me and my baby, but what options are we talking about?" she asked.
Sania Bhat, who works as a manager at a retail store in a posh Srinagar market said shops, schools, businesses, colleges and any other organization "need workers rather than mothers who will take two-three breaks in a day to feed the child for 15 minutes". "Many of the organizations are even reluctant to hire women with the logic that they may take leave, that too unpaid one, for their child birth," she said. The society as a whole is very unsupportive to working mothers, she believes.
Two years ago, the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at GMC Srinagar started the first Nursery at its office for facilitating female employees with children. Dr S Saleem Khan, head of the department said they wanted to encourage the mothers to bring in a young child to work while they delivered their responsibilities as workers. "We have a responsibility towards people who work for us. This way, we are contributing to a better society," he said. Dr Khan believes that a woman with her child in vicinity is a "happier mother and better worker".
"Exclusive breastfeeding needs all stakeholders to come together and ensure that a woman is able to do what you expect her to do, whether she is a worker, home-maker, businesswoman or anything apart from these," he said.