Every so often, I come across something on Twitter which makes me rub my eyes and check the date.
Today’s laugh-with-nervous-incredulity comes courtesy of a Huffington Post article on a recent new law introduced in the United Arab Emirates.
As part of their Child Rights Law (who could object to any piece of legislation with that title?), it is now a legal requirement for mothers to breastfeed for the first two years of their child’s lives. A woman who fails to do so can be sued by her husband, although presumably other penalties will be involved – how else to protect the rights of a fatherless child against its…mother?
I’m generally in favour of any measures which promote and encourage breastfeeding, from the availability of properly trained supporters to a pushback against a culture which sees it increasingly as a bolshy, narcissistic, unnecessary act. I think the proper promotion and support of breastfeeding is a women’s rights issue, too, in that it apparently takes uncommon sophistry to accept that a woman may retain all her personal, professional and educational attributes, while wishing also to capitalise on the relatively short period of life in which a child may be dependent on her.
All other things being equal, there is little doubt that breastfeeding is the best start in life for a baby. Of course, however, all other things rarely are equal, and breastmilk substitutes (and parent substitutes) are an everyday part of life, without significant detriment. Breastfeeding doesn’t trump all other pieces in the jigsaw of parenting; we have to credit women with the ability to make choices in this as in all other aspects of their lives, based on their physical, mental, emotional and financial circumstances.
Which is why this legislation is so worrying. It has, surely, little really to do with giving a child the best possible start in life. For reasons which are almost too obvious to state, it is unenforceable on any practical or equitable level. Women who are ‘unable’ to breastfeed will be provided with a wet nurse, but the mechanics of doing so are unclear. In any event, how could ‘unable’ ever be determined? As with abortion, presumably those who have the money to do so will have the choice anyway, regardless of statute. What about babies who self-wean, as two of mine did, before the age of two? There is the ludicrous, but not remotely amusing, scenario of mothers desperately trying to continue breastfeeding against a backdrop of disapproving family or relatives who might relish the opportunity to cause trouble with law enforcement.
Tellingly, although this proposal was ultimately deemed worthy of a place in law, measures which would protect and facilitate the rights of breastfeeding mothers in the workplace were not. It’s hard enough to continue breastfeeding after maternity leave even with the most supportive of employers and an appropriate workplace – breasts (and babies) unfortunately can struggle to understand the stress of a pumping schedule. Where there is a duty in law for any woman with a child under the age of two to be available around the clock for feeding, why employ her? Why educate her at all, since her ultimate place in life is so clearly and publicly defined? Why treat your wife as an equal partner, when the official message is that she is subservient to the perceived needs of your child? Why respect any woman, if she’s little more than a means to an end? I don’t mean to suggest that the new law would change women’s position overnight – but how can the message it sends fail to do so over time?
Writing this feels weird. I am no expert on women’s rights in the UAE; I have no more than general knowledge about the UAE at all. Nor do I think it is anything which could ever remotely be implemented here. But on a day when my Twitter and Facebook timelines talk of 100+ million girls and women worldwide affected by FGM; in a week when there is discussion – however abstract – as to whether a woman can be held criminally liable for harm caused to her unborn child; it is a deeply troubling thing to read of women being consigned in law to a status which effectively deprives them of agency for the purposes of one subjective, selective advantage to their children. There are countless better ways to further the rights of a child than seeking to criminalise its mother. If you really want to support children, you take the rights and welfare of women seriously.