Breastfeeding Under Threat in the Philippines
ASIA SERIES : PART 1
Breastfeeding in the Philippines is under threat by milk firms that want to grow their market, which has been reduced recently due to strong legislation and advocacy of breastfeeding.
Angelica Carballo, a mother of a three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, is a breastfeeding advocate. A freelance photographer and writer by profession, Carballo will turn down a project if it means eating a significant chunk of her breastfeeding time. She believes that breastfeeding’s positive effects on children should not be threatened by any measure or impending legislation.
She recently held an exhibit portraying mothers who breastfeed their children and why the practice should not be threatened.
“The exhibit is a reminder that breastfeeding is best for babies and their mothers; safe and cost effective; empowers women; and ensures a healthy, intelligent, and stable new generation for our country,” she says. According to her, breastfeeding is not only part of women empowerment, but is also a very beautiful gift to one’s offspring.
As a breastfeeding advocate, Carballo believes that breastfeeding in the Philippines should be encouraged and not threatened by anything including a bill that would benefit milk companies more than mothers and infants. Formula can also be mixed with polluted water causing a serious health risk to infants.
A bill has been filed in Congress to amend an existing law, the Milk Code of the Philippines, hailed internationally by organisations such as the United Nations and the International Labor Organisation. As Filipino lawyer Rita Jimeno wrote in an article on the Female Network, the code prohibits advertising practices that entice mothers to choose artificial milk products over their own breast milk.
However, there are now proposals in Congress to reduce the Milk Code’s reach. Further, the draft legislation lifts the restriction on donations of artificial milk products in emergency situations, which could discourage mothers from breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding advocates are now trying to block the amendments. There is an online petition to protect mothers and babies from the baby food industry.
“The industry wants to be allowed to advertise baby milks, to contact mothers for so-called educational purposes and to sponsor and train health workers. This is unacceptable and violates internationally agreed marketing standards. According to the World Health Organisation 16,000 babies die every year in the Philippines due to inappropriate feeding. Companies make untrue claims implying that formula protects babies and boosts intelligence, while failing to provide adequate information on the risks to babies fed on formula or how to reduce the risks to babies who have to be fed on formula,” the online petition reads.
LATCH, Inc., a group of breastfeeding advocates, also added its voice to the opposition against the pending legislation. ”The original Milk Code seeks to limit marketing of formula milk to children up to three years of age. The consolidated bill reduces this period and limits the market of formula to children up to 6 months only. The Department of Health advocates breastfeeding for two years and beyond,” said Buding Aquinno-Dee, president and co-founder of LATCH.
The Save the Babies Coalition has accused milk companies of bribing lawmakers to get the amendments through. Milk companies, for their part, denied bribing lawmakers to relax the advertisement ban on milk products intended for infants aged six months and younger.
Grace Quevedo-Panagsagan, lead counsel of the Infant and Pediatric Nutrition Association of the Philippines (IPNAP), said there is no truth to the accusation of Save the Babies Coalition convenor Ines Fernandez that milk companies paid off lawmakers. “IPNAP and its members conduct ourselves in civilized manner and do not engage in false accusations that just muddle the issues.,” she said. “We are responsible for every single action and statement we make. We owe it to the mothers and kids out there listening to us.”
Meanwhile, the ILO, UN Children’s Fund, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) congratulated the Philippine government for improvements in breastfeeding rates in the country.
Citing figures released by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), they said that exclusive breastfeeding rates in the Philippines have risen to 47 per cent in 2011 from 36 per cent in 2008. ‘The initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of delivery has increased from 32 per cent in 2008 to 52 per cent in 2011,” according to their joint statement.
The government-sponsored 2011 Family Health Survey showed that in some areas of the Philippines, exclusive breastfeeding rates are as low as 27 per cent. WHO representative in the Philippines, Dr Soe Nyunt-U, says that the recent increase in breastfeeding rates puts the country a step closer to achieving the Millennium Development Goals on child health: “Breastfeeding can save the lives of both mothers and babies. This is one of the important interventions to reducing child mortality and improving maternal health.’ ”
Various sectors including NGOs, political leaders and the media are helping the government sustain the improvements in breastfeeding.
Angelica Carballo and other breastfeeding advocates continue successfully to advocate by teaching women the benefits of breastfeeding while the legislative battle continues and the milk industry’s advertisements spread a different message.