The Presiding Speaker of Kenya’s National Assembly in Nairobi, Chris Omulele, shocked the country when he ordered orderlies to throw out Kwale Woman representative, Zulekha Hassan, for entering the chambers with her five-month-old son.
In her defense, the women representative from Kwale County, South of Mombasa City, said she came with the baby to breastfeed him while attending to the house business on Wednesday, 7 August 2019.
But the speaker ordered that she be thrown out, ruling that the chamber is not the right place to do it.
“I had an emergency and decided not to miss work but come with the baby. She is not an atomic bomb and can’t explode,” Hassan said.
The unprecedented move brings to the fore pertinent issues on whether achieving exclusive breast feeding in Kenya and in Africa as a whole is still achievable.
There is no doubt that thousands of modern working women, such as the women representative, are currently facing challenges to balance work and raise a healthy family. A key reason that women do not breastfeed in Kenya or stop breastfeeding early is the need to return to work.
The reality is that the responsibility for breastfeeding is placed on the mothers’ shoulders, without any consideration of the political, social, and environmental factors that shape breastfeeding.
The decision to eject the woman speaker out of the chambers in full glare of the media, clearly casts the question whether the man has a role in women breast feeding.
Exclusive breastfeeding levels remain low across Africa. According to UNICEF, West Africa has one of the lowest rates in the world, with countries such as Chad recording 2percent and Côte d’Ivoire four percent.
Kenya, however, remains one of only a handful of countries that have been able to achieve the World Health Assembly (WHA) target of increasing exclusive breastfeeding to 50 percent by 2025.
In 2013, Kenya passed a motion directing the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC) to set aside a room within Parliament buildings for breastfeeding mothers. This is yet to be done six years later.
Ironically, today marks the last day of the week in which the world is marking the World Breastfeeding Week which begun on 1 August 2019.
The theme for this year’s World Breastfeeding Week “Empower Parents, Enabling Breastfeeding” calls for empowerment of parents to achieve exclusive breastfeeding right from conception.
There is no doubt that breast milk is the best food for a newborn baby. No commercial-made baby formula, or any other food or drink, can match breast milk.
According to medical experts, the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding in Africa, including Kenya, is less than the recommended standard.
Major obstacles cited to hinder exclusive breastfeeding include medical challenges, short maternity leave, lack of institutional policies to support breastfeeding staff, lack of food, lack of knowledge, lack of physical and emotional support among other issues.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months and thereafter continue breastfeeding supplemented by complementary feeds until the baby is two years old and beyond for optimal growth and development.
Dr Sikolia Wanyonyi, Obstetrician Gynaecologist at the Agha Khan University, notes that mothers living with HIV should breastfeed for at least 12 months and may continue breastfeeding for up to 24 months or longer while being fully supported for antiretroviral therapy adherence.
“In settings where health services provide and support lifelong antiretroviral therapy, including adherence counselling, and promote and support breastfeeding among women living with HIV, the duration of breastfeeding should not be restricted,” Wanyonyi told African Press Agency in Nairobi.
On the other hand, Dr. Rose Kamenwa, Paediatrician at the same hospital noted that to promote exclusive breastfeeding, interventions should be delivered in a combination of settings by involving health systems, home and family and the community environment concurrently.
“Breast milk formation starts as early as 28 weeks of pregnancy. In order to ensure steady and continued formation of breast milk, hospital antenatal clinics are urged to initiate and provide the parents with necessary knowledge throughout the pregnancy, delivery and post-natal period for them to support each other both physically and emotionally in order to get constant supply of breastmilk,” she said.
Mary Mathenge, Lactation Manager at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi, pregnancy and breastfeeding place extra demands on the mother’s body.
“To meet these demands, they need to think about what is best to eat and drink. Good nutrition in pregnancy helps the mothers to stay healthy and energetic and to prepare for taking care of the new baby,” she pointed out.
So, is it possible for more African countries to yield to the calls by WHO to allow exclusive breastfeeding? Yes, with political will from the governments who have the drive to enact the right policies to safeguard the health of the future generations.