A New Law on Breastfeeding in the UAE

By Cassandra Flores, Social Media

On January 21, 2014, the Federal National Council of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) passed a clause in their Child Rights Bill that requires all Emirati women to breastfeed their infant for two years. While breastfeeding is widely considered the best means of feeding infants, the clause itself has caused a great deal of controversy. Encouraging new mothers to breastfeed can help improve the health of both the mothers and their children, but is passing a law requiring it the right way to show support?

The World Health Organization(WHO) considers breastfeeding the typical manner of providing infants with the nutrition they need, while providing health benefits that may extend into adulthood.  It helps children recover from ailments more quickly and reduces child mortality, protecting babies and young children from such common causes of infant death as diarrhea and pneumonia. It also aids in sensory and cognitive development. Breastfeeding may also be beneficial to the mother, reducing the risk for ovarian and breast cancer. Accordingly, the WHO seeks to protect and encourage breastfeeding around the world.

Proponents of the clause echo this support. Some insist that it is in the child’s best interest, while others take it a step further, including Council committee member Sultan al Sammahi of Fujairah, who claims breastfeeding is a child’s right. Others in favor argued that it would strengthen the parent-child bond. Ahmed Al Shamsi from Ajman felt that breastfeeding should be a duty, rather than an option, for new mothers.

One of the law’s biggest detractors was the Minister of Social Affairs, Mariam Al Roumi, who felt that the law would lead to husbands suing their wives if they did not comply, which would create new court cases. A Dubai-based group, Out of the Blues, which supports new mothers with illnesses, expressed concerns that the law would target women at a particularly vulnerable time.

Committee members also sought a clause to the law that would compel the government to ensure that all workplaces have nurseries to help ease the burden of working mothers, but Ms. Al Roumi felt that such a clause did not belong in this law, because it focuses on women’s rights rather than child rights. Another minister said a new law on nurseries would be developed soon. Others wished to see a wet nurse provided in cases where the mother is not able to breastfeed.

While few disagree about the benefits of breastfeeding, the issue at hand in the UAE is whether or not it is right to enforce the practice. Without additional support like providing wet nurses, the law does little to protect women who can’t breastfeed.  Furthermore, this mandate could serve as a bar to women returning to the workforce if proper infrastructure such as nurseries and daycares are not provided. Lastly, the responsibility to report a woman for failing to comply would fall largely with her family members, giving them a great deal of power over the accused individual. These proceedings raise many questions. How will clause non-compliance reports be verified? What will happen to women and her child once accused? Ultimately, while the law does seek to support a healthy and mutually beneficial practice, by focusing on punishment rather than promotion, the law has the potential to do more harm than good.

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