The cover picture of the Grihalakshmi magazine recently ignited a huge debate throughout the country about the portrayal of a woman breastfeeding openly. The model, Gilu Joseph, and the fortnightly faced a lot of criticism. But what many don’t know is that in the 1980s, our very own government released a postal stamp that featured a mother breastfeeding a child — without covering up.
The stamp was published in 1984. No one objected to the postal stamp then, which was widely used for postal services in an era when India was not as modern as it is now. The stamp promoted breastfeeding and nobody batted an eyelid at the portrayal of a mother and her exposed breast on which a baby is seen suckling.
India is not the only country that issued a postal stamp to promote breastfeeding; other countries like Greece, France, Iran, Myanmar, Poland and others, both modern and conservative, also issued postal stamps for the cause.
While breastfeeding in public is quite common in rural areas even now as it was in urban India of earlier times, ironically it is the urban and modern crowd that has objected more vehemently to the Grihalakshmi cover, not the people of the 1980s when the breastfeeding stamp was issued in India.
Take a modern country like the United States for example. Breastfeeding in public in the US comes up with a lot of constraints. There have been many reports of women being harassed for breastfeeding, and being asked to cover up. On the other hand, conservative nations of the Persian Gulf allow women to breastfeed their children in open spaces like parks and malls.
In urban India, nursing mothers opt to carry a bottle of formula when they go out of their home as they find it ‘inappropriate’ to breastfeed in public, while women in rural India seem to have no such inhibitions, as it is not frowned upon.
Health experts advice nursing mothers to feed newborns with their milk at least for a year. In countries like India, where most of the population can’t even afford to purchase dairy milk or formula, initiatives to promote breastfeeding should be given a thumbs up, instead of making women feel judged for feeding their hungry child.
There are nursing rooms in airports, stations, malls but it’s still a rarity to find mothers breastfeeding at their convenience in public places when their child is hungry. They are forced to anxiously look for “appropriate places” in which to nurse their babies, or cover up the breast and the baby, not taking into account the discomfort the baby would feel having to feed under wraps.
While a Bikini wearing model image is accepted in a magazine, breastfeeding is not. While Bollywood stars emerging from a beach bath is acceptable, the image of a hungry infant being fed is not.
According to a survey conducted by World Health Organisation, India- Rapid Survey on Children (Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2015) only 45% infants are now being breastfed within an hour of birth in India and just 65% are being exclusively breastfed as per WHO recommendations.
The India Newborn Action Plan (INAP) developed by Ministry of Health & Family Welfare in 2014, is targeting a 75% rate of initiation of breastfeeding within an hour of birth by 2017 and 90% by 2025.
This being the situation, any campaign that promotes breastfeeding is welcome. As the campaigns attempt to inform, the breast is not merely a sexual organ but a source of sustenance for infants. Thus, appropriate is the headline that Grihalakshmi went with, “Mothers tell Kerala: Please don't stare, we need to breastfeed.”