Gender and Development

Politicizing Breastfeeding- The Impact on Women’s Rights and Global Public Health

Women's rights have been a hotly contested topic in the past two years, with breastfeeding becoming the newest addition to the list. Katie Dobosz Kenney assesses the impact the politicization of breastfeeding has on women's rights and global public health.


The topic of women’s autonomy over their bodies and choices remains a hotly contested topic, especially with respect to the Trump Administration. It is baffling that a continual reminder of women’s ability to freely exercise their individual agency, especially in matters of health and wellness, is necessary in 2018; and yet blunders like the World Health Assembly in May are a glaring example of why.

According to a New York Times report, the United States threatened to withdraw military aid and apply harsh economic/trade sanction against Ecuador over the introduction of a resolution on protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding globally. The US wanted to strike language mentioning restrictions on promoting and advertising of food harmful to children, which in some cases, includes breastmilk substitutes. The United States’ response attempted to weaponize women’s agency, by stating that the restrictive language excluded women, who may for a host of reasons, not have the capacity to breastfeed.

And this issue is, of course, an important one; the struggles of breastfeeding are exacerbated by a lack funding for adequate training and education postpartum, a cultural stigma of breastfeeding publicly in the US, and little leeway with employers for time to either breastfeed or pump, not to mention medical issues that may prevent natural breast feeding. These obstacles combined, make breastmilk substitutes an appealing, and sometimes the only, alternative.

But at the heart of the World Health Assembly fiasco is the United States advancing the interests of a thriving industry primarily manufactured in the US under the guise of supporting women’s agency; the global public health implications of which are troubling. Robust studies and research conducted since the late 1970s regarding the linkages between breastfeeding and infant development show conclusively that breastfeeding, especially in the first 6 months of life greatly reduces infant mortality, bolsters the immune system, and protects against a host of physiological diseases. In the overwhelming majority of cases, regardless of socioeconomic status, breastfeeding is the most cost-effective method of infant healthcare, with the greatest benefits.

The reality is that the multi-million dollar breastmilk substitute industry has an extensive history of overreach and opportunism, especially and disproportionately in low-income communities and developing nations where higher birth rates are seen as viable markets. Companies like Nestle have long been under fire for impeding women’s ability to make the most informed decisions for themselves and their babies as a result of false advertising and incentivizing healthcare professionals with lavish gifts to promote substitutes over natural breast milk. In developing nations like the Philippines, infants are often given formula first, reinforcing the mother and baby’s dependence on it. Lack of access to clean water and over-dilution to save on the expense of formula are often linked to infant mortality and morbidity.

Additionally, Nestle specifically disregards environmental sustainability in their contributions to plastic waste and ability to use financial sway to extract resources like clean water.

The advancements of technology brings the benefits of rapid progression, especially in understanding best practices in health and wellness. But technology also brings the glaring reality of our interconnectedness, and it is impossible in 2018 to feign ignorance to the struggles of people in our communities and around the world. It is not the obligation of one nation to solve and aid all global human issues, but it is the human obligation to not exacerbate them. The United States was thankfully unsuccessful in their attempt to thwart the efforts of the WHO this time, but the need for vigilance and action in the defense of global women’s autonomy and agency will remain.

Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an MS in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie had developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa and the UAE.

Photo Credit: The Bump

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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