Breastfeeding – Wisdom from the Past Gold Standard for the Future

Keynote Address by Anwar Fazal, Chairman, at the 16th International Conference, La Leche League International at Orlando, USA, on 4 July 1999.

As-salam-alai-kum, which means peace be upon you. I like to begin with the word peace because more than anything else it says it all about our work. Peace has three dimensions:

  • Peace within ourselves
  • Peace with other people
  • Peace with the earth

Today, the world is far from this peace. Tensions and conflicts challenge us and painfully inflict damage to us in many ways and in so many places.

Yet in so many places and in so many ways, people are seeking peace. I once heard a delightful song, a melody of warmth, of friendship and of power. The song went “we are one and we are many, and we share the same dream.”

That could be the song of all of us- “ We are one but we are many, too. And we share the same dream.”

What is that dream – It is simple one to protect, promote and support breastfeeding everywhere.

When I think of the joy and power of breastfeeding, I think of a beautiful flower with five petals – representing sound nutrition, life saving medicines, rational economics, responsible ecology and deep love.

The grim reality today is that in so many ways and in so many places, humankind is engaged in paths that are destructive, in paths that are unsustainable.

Nowhere has it been so starkly cruel and more destructive in history that in the way breastfeeding has been subverted and undermined in this century.

The late James Grant who was the Executive Director of the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) said it first memorably when addressing key players in a town and institute called Innocenti in Italy, which for 500 years has worked on children’s health. Jim Grant said:

“Yesterday, merely because mothers were not effectively, empowered with the knowledge, were not adequately motivated and supported to breastfeed, three to 4,000 infants and young children died.  Today three or 4,000 died, 30 days ago another three to 4,000 died.

“Yesterday, again merely because mothers were not effectively empowered, motivated and supported to breastfeed, many more thousands of babies were born too soon and often too many than was good for the health of the babies or their mothers.

“Yesterday, millions of others who would have liked to have breastfed their babies, were not given the opportunity to do so.  Not given the opportunity to do so when they knew what the adverse consequences could be for the health of the babies, and for the economic situation of their families.”

It was not considered newsworthy, that the number of children who died yesterday because of insufficiency of breastfeeding equalled the death toll of the Bhopal chemical disaster of several years ago in India that commanded the front page of virtually every paper in the world.  And this toll did not occur as a singular, isolated incident; it occurs every day!

Nor has it been considered newsworthy that the resulting weekly death toll for the lack of effective breastfeeding is equal to the death toll of the Armenian earthquake disaster, which brought a worldwide response of hundreds of millions of dollars within a month.

Nor it is newsworthy that the resulting monthly death toll is equivalent to that from the Hiroshima nuclear explosion in 1945.  Inadequate breastfeeding results in a Hiroshima every month!

But now the people are fighting back everywhere to reclaim their first right, their first food breastmilk. They are fighting back the evil of subversion and killing of a natural, God-given special start in life.

Millions of mothers are discovering and rediscovering the joy and power of breastfeeding.  Thousands of hospitals are dedicating themselves to being “baby-friendly” – the United Nations stamp for hospitals that care for breastfeeding.

I like to share with you three challenges that are central to this struggle for our first right and first food.

The first is the challenge of vision.  We have learnt that to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, we must engage in a vision that ensures the human right and responsibility to food security, to good health and a safe environment.  We have learnt that we must engage in a struggle for the rights of children and the rights of women.  If we include these different but related concepts, we have a vision, with soul, with heart and holistic force.

Only with the larger holistic vision can we overcome the curse of greed and violence, of materialism and mass destruction. James Robertson once said this memorably – He said that we must move from a “HE” society to a “SHE” society. “HE” stood for “Hyper Exploitative” and “SHE” for “Sane, Humanistic and Ecological” society.

The Second challenge is that of Information.  Information is power and those who promote greed and violence have learnt to control and manipulate this in mega and diverse ways.  We must engage in the real democratisation of information by building on both community-based capabilities and the power of the new information technologies.  We must organise to challenge the curse of the control and manipulation of global information systems, especially through advertising and sponsorship by those who promote greed and materialism. “Demarketing” and “counter information” movement must blossom everywhere. “But Nothing Day”, organised from Canada is a recent example of a new social movement of rational spending.

The third challenge is that of Networking.  Today is the age of Networking.  Today is the age of the networks that bring together nomads, bureaucracies and hierarchies into inclusive cumulative networks that can flow and engage laterally and vertically, locally and globally. They give you the power of the small and big, they give you both lightness, yet vast coverage; they transcend the curse of petty interests and exclusiveness, and enables the liberation of a collective strength – based paradoxically on “soft” links.  Today public interest networks around issues and events are making the most dramatic possibilities for social transformation.

WABA, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, and the La Leche League together symbolise such “new age” organisations where the synergy, small and big, local and global, special interest or broadbased can act together and make things happen around the soul of a vision or cruelty of an injustice.

WABA has launched a global campaign called “10 Links for Nurturing the Future”.  These 10 Links provide us with a comprehensive framework to help shape the future of breastfeeding. Let me briefly share these Ten Links* with you:

1.   Human Rights & Responsibilities: Ensure that human rights and the responsibility for food security, for good health and a safe environment, particularly for women and children, are fully observed in order to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, and sound infant and young child nutrition.

  1. Food Security: Enable all women to practice exclusive breastfeeding from birth to about six months of age. · Enable continued breastfeeding and appropriate complementary foods for up to two years of age or beyond, contributing to household food security. · Strengthen government and citizens’ actions that ensure adequate maternal nutrition and food security for all. · Encourage production and use of appropriate indigenous complementary foods.
  2. Women’s Empowerment: Develop innovative social support systems for all mothers, including adequate maternity legislation. · Strengthen women’s role in decision-making at all levels and provide accurate information about infant and young child feeding.
  3. Community Participation: Encourage the development of community support groups, including mother-to-mother support groups. · Involve fully the community, including citizen groups, religious leaders and policy makers in educational partnership processes that empower all people to improve infant and young child nutrition, and thereby their own lives.
  4. Baby-Friendly Cultures: Ensure that the practices recommended in the ‘Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding’ as elaborated in the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) are implemented throughout the healthcare system and by traditional birth attendants. · Expand the “baby-friendly” concept to antenatal clinics, primary healthcare services, work places and communities, creating an environment where every mother can naturally and easily breastfeed.
  5. Integrity: Refuse any gifts, sponsorship or support from manufacturers of infant feeding products and accessories. · Condemn advertising that exploits women’s bodies and the use of products that cause waste and harm the environment.
  6. International Code: Push for the implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions through the adoption and enforcement of strong national legislation or regulations. · Protect consumers and health workers from misleading commercial promotion, free trade excesses and misinformation about Codex Alimentarius provisions.
  7. Capacity Building: Develop the capacity of health and childcare workers, nutritionists, government officials, social workers, citizen groups and the community in general to understand breastfeeding and sound infant and young child nutrition needs. · Ensure that primary healthcare staff, nurses, midwives, doctors, specialists and other health workers have adequate training in breastfeeding and sound infant and young child nutrition; and support the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk substitutes, related resolutions and other appropriate international instruments.
  8. Advocacy: Advocate for the implementation of sound national infant and young child feeding policies which include the promotion, protection and support of breastfeeding and the timely use of appropriate complementary foods. · Involve the media and citizens groups in creating social pressure for behavioural change towards supporting breastfeeding and sound infant and young child nutrition. · Influence policies and an economic, social, political and physical environment that nurtures sustainable human development.
  9. Networking: Contribute to the creation of local and national networks of organisations, individuals and government agencies working for sound infant and young child feeding, and broader issues of childcare.  · Link and integrate these networks with regional and international movements from all sectors of civil society that seek to nurture a sustainable future.

Let us dedicate ourselves this week to build a future to make these Links stronger by:

  • Promoting the joy and power of breastfeeding.
  • Promoting the culture of peace.
  • Building the solidarity of family and community.
  • Promoting the first right, the first food - breastmilk, a gift of nature,  power, and love, and a gift of God.

Let us join together to make this year’s World Breastfeeding Week (1-7 August) which has the theme Breastfeeding: Education for Life even more successful.

Let us also dedicated ourselves to exposing those large corporations that continue to undermine breastfeeding if not overtly, then covertly.  Too many and all too often, they don’t even comply with the United Nations International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk substitutes.  By such unconscionable behaviour, they subvert one of the fundamentals of healthy and civilised society.

The La Leche League and WABA are forces for happiness. Let us work together to enlarge this happiness.

Remember the song: “We are one, but we are many, and we share the same dream”.

Working together we will make that dream of protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding come true for more and more people.  Let the wisdom of the past continue to be the gold standard for the future.

Let me, in conclusion, share with you a poem about working together, about the power of networking. It is by Robert Muller, a former assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and now President of the University of Peace, based in Costa Rica.


Decide to network

Use every letter you write

Every conversation you have

Every meeting you attend

To express your fundamental beliefs and dreams

Affirm to other the vision of the world you want

Network through thought

Network through action

Network through love

Network through the spirit

You are the centre of the network

You are the centre of the world

You are a free, immensely powerful source

of life and goodness

Affirm it

Spread it

Radiate it

Think day and night about it

And you will see a miracle happen

The greatness of your own life

In a world of big powers, media and monopolies

But for six billion individuals

Networking is the new freedom

the new democracy

a new form of happiness.


Thank you.


* I like to acknowledge the work of Andrew Chetley, author of The Baby Killer Scandal for assisting WABA in developing these 10 Links.

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