The other day at a crowded mall in Mumbai, I heard a child crying incessantly; the mother looked flustered and tried distracting the child but to no avail. I asked if I could assist, and received an embarrassed reply—the child was hungry, and needed to be breastfed. My initial emotional reaction was annoyance, until I realised something: there was no designated place for mothers to breastfeed.
Switch locations mentally: the same scene plays out at bus stops, railway stations, parks and other public places and the same issue raises its head.
The breast is viewed as a sexual organ, inviting harassment if exposed in public, never mind that it's for feeding an infant.
Should this be an issue? After all, we are a country that has the worlds' youngest population. Nearly two-thirds of our 1.2 billion plus population is below the age of 35, including women of prime childbearing age; this number is only growing. Doctors and child health experts will tell you—and most mothers know this anyway—that breastfeeding is the best form of nutrition for a child until it attains the age of one year. Yet our society is not set up to enable this natural act of feeding.
We are faced with a cultural conundrum—in modern India, women are expected to be modestly dressed, which largely means covering up most of the body. Baring a breast, even if to feed a baby, is viewed as a brazen act. We are also a culture that blames its victims: women are held responsible for all the atrocities committed against them, regardless of how they are dressed.
So it's unimaginable for a mother to breastfeed her child in public, unlike in countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, Norway, the Philippines, Taiwan and the UK (to name a few).
While here we are discussing the infrastructural challenges and social stigma attached to breastfeeding in public spaces, Australian senator, Larissa Waters, broke many a taboo by proudly feeding her 11-week-old daughter while moving a motion in Parliament. It was indeed a poignant moment in history when a woman actively took a stand to reinforce her right to work even while tending to her infant. As she rightly said, "Women are going to continue to have babies and if they want to do their job and be at work and look after their baby ... the reality is we are going to have to accommodate that."
In a country that will soon be home to the world's youngest population, protecting nursing rights for mothers will be critical for the health of the nation.
It is not so much about a woman reinforcing her rights though. The core problem is that of a mindset—one of repulsion and hostility associated with breastfeeding in public places.
The breast is viewed as a sexual organ, inviting harassment if exposed in public, never mind that it's for feeding an infant. Mothers must do this only at home, or must pump the milk and carry it while traveling, or wait till the child is weaned off breast milk to resume normal lives.
This is India, where breastfeeding becomes even more important when most people cannot afford formula milk. Besides, many mothers take their children to places of work and infants must be fed regularly.
What we really need is legislation enabling breastfeeding in public, in little shelters that are hygienic for nursing babies, providing privacy and safety from harassment, set up and maintained by the state, or via private giving/philanthropy. This idea may seem foolish and be mocked, perhaps even ignored. But unless we promote this actively, we cannot bring about change.
In a country which will soon be home to the world's youngest population, protecting nursing rights for mothers will be critical for the health of the nation. While we gear up to be the world's fastest-growing economy, investing in smart cities and cattle protection, can we also please focus on creating infrastructure for mothers? Let's make this about us, let's do this for Mother India.