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Breastfeeding a matter of human rights, say UN experts, urging action on formula milk

GENEVA (22 November 2016) – Breastfeeding is a human rights issue for babies and mothers and should be protected and promoted for the benefit of both, a group of United Nations experts says in a statement* made public today.

States should take urgent action to stop the “misleading, aggressive and inappropriate” marketing of breast-milk substitutes in a multi-billion-dollar global industry, say the UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to health, Dainius Pûras, and on the right to food, Hilal Elver, together with the Working Group on discrimination against women, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

“These marketing practices often negatively affect the choices women make on how to feed their infants in the best way possible, and can impede both babies and mothers from enjoying the many health benefits of breastfeeding,” the experts say.

“This is particularly harmful when companies are targeting untapped markets in developing countries because those in developed countries are already saturated,” they note.

The human rights experts pointed out that the tools available to States to crack down on inappropriate marketing practices are not being used sufficiently.

“Simply too few States have adopted the necessary stringent, comprehensive and enforceable legal measures,” they stress. “We call on them to adopt such measures to protect babies and mothers from misleading marketing practices, and fully align with the recommendations contained in the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent relevant World Health Assembly resolutions, and new guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO).” 

The experts also warned that there is a lack of corporate accountability for the adverse consequences of these abuses, noting that the global industry is currently worth $44.8bn and is predicted to increase to more than $70bn within three years. At the same time, breastfeeding rates remain stagnant, with only one in three of the world’s babies under six months old being exclusively breast-fed.

WHO estimates that the lives of more 820,000 children could be saved every year if all mothers followed its advice (http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/breastfeeding/en/) to start breastfeeding within an hour of birth, give only breast milk for the first six months, and continue breastfeeding until their children reach the age of two alongside appropriate complementary foods.

Obstacles to progress highlighted by the experts include a lack of information from health workers, cultural and family traditions, and stigmatization of women breastfeeding in public places and at the workplace, exposing women to harmful gender stereotypes or taboos in all regions.

Experts also underline that restriction of women’s autonomy in making decisions about their own lives leads to violation of women’s rights to health and infringes women’s dignity and bodily integrity. States and others should be careful not to condemn or judge women who do not want or who cannot breastfeed.

As well as clamping down on inappropriate marketing, the UN experts highlighted practical steps to promote, support and protect breastfeeding such as paid maternity leave, safe workplace spaces for feeding or expressing and storing milk, better training for health workers, and ensuring women have accurate information so they could make informed choices about optimal feeding practices. Access to good quality breast milk substitutes should be regulated, and affordable.

“Children have the right to the highest attainable standard of health,” they say. “Breastfeeding is a key part of this, followed by safe and nutritious foods as their development continues.

“Scientific studies consistently show that breastfed children are more likely to survive and thrive, while it has been demonstrated that women can be protected against certain illnesses,” human rights experts underscore.

(*) Check out the full statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20871&LangID=E

ENDS

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx 

For more information and media requests please contact Ms. Dolores Infante-Cañibano (+41 22 917 9768 / dinfante@ohchr.org), Ms. Lucía de la Sierra (+41 22 917 9741 / ldelasierra@ohchr.org) or write to srhealth@ohchr.org

 

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