By Elizabeth Kemigisha 

Advocacy Manager –FIDA Uganda 

And Safina Virani

Co- Founder and Co- Director –Frauen Initiative Uganda.

Breastfeeding mothers typically receive ill treatment when they attempt to breastfeed in public; being told to cover up or move away from a public area although breastfeeding is a norm. Breastfeeding mothers, like any other women and human beings, have an absolute right to access public spaces while embracing all significant aspects of their personhood, and yet the lived realities of these mothers are marked by inequality and a lack of autonomy. 

My reflections have caused me to look into the challenges breastfeeding mothers face. Challenges that cause them to not breastfeed their babies exclusively, for as long as they want and in places they would like. Breastfeeding has a long list of benefits and is the preference of many women, yet the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding of infants who are five months and younger is only 42.8% in Uganda. So, what steers women from breastfeeding their children, when it is after all their first preference? 

The list is long and discouraging – there’s the absence of workplace policies and facilities to promote breastfeeding, to the struggles of women in the informal sector who have no source of income if they were to take ‘maternity leave’. To top it off, women living with HIV and AIDS lack access to reliable information and good nutrition – I wrote about this here. The most disturbing reason on the list would be men who discourage women from breastfeeding due to a false sense of entitlement over their bodies.

Breastfeeding decisions and experiences are complex and personal. Factors such as a woman’s health, the health of her baby, the needs of her other children and family members, the family’s living conditions and other demands on the woman’s time and energy, influence this decision. All these factors clearly demonstrate that rather than it being an individual act, breastfeeding is structured through prevailing socio-cultural meanings and economic conditions.

The breastfeeding body is subject to subversive forms of regulation and control in contemporary society, and we see this dynamic play out in the way that women who breastfeed their babies in public face ostracism and abuse. A woman who spends long hours of her day using public transport or in other public places runs the risk of being shamed for ‘exposing her breasts in public’ if she dares to breastfeed her baby. Yet, this is the same erratic society which gratuitously flaunts breasts in advertisements and other forms of media in a bid to attract more sales. 

This situation-where breasts are treated as objects of sexual gratification-is influential to a woman’s decision as to whether she will breastfeed in public or not. Therefore, it is not surprising that many women feel uncomfortable when attempting to breastfeed in public or in overcrowded living spaces. The end result is that breastfeeding mothers are forced to opt for ‘privacy’ in ways that entail invisibility and exclusion from the ‘public’ spaces.

What is this bias against women breastfeeding in public rooted in then? Could it have originated from the industrial revolution’s radical division of the work into two spheres: The domestic sphere –largely populated by women doing traditionally “domestic” activities like breastfeeding, and a public sphere – populated by men. Could it be because women who breastfeed in public dare to “step out”, and do things that do not center on pleasing men, with their bodies in this “public arena”?

It is therefore important that we ask; who decides when public nudity of women is acceptable?

It clearly depends on men’s ‘convenience’ and perceived control over women’s bodies. Once the breast’s role is no longer to sexually gratify or be a source of pleasure,but is instead used by women to nourish a child, it suddenly becomes something society should not see. Breastfeeding is therefore an issue of autonomy over women’s bodies; social and gender ownership of an ‘acceptable’ female body.

We also see a dynamic where women- usually middle-class women – fling aversion towards women who choose to breastfeed in public spaces. It is important that we understand that this pushback, against women breastfeeding in public, is rooted in patriarchy. The disdain with which middle class women address the issue of public breastfeeding comes from the shock that women who are less privileged have dared to use their bodies in a manner that defies the norm. Such behaviour on the part of middle-class women, is rooted in the bondage of privilege. Privilege enjoyed by women in formal employment, whose workplaces allow for time off, and sometimes space to breastfeed. When a poor woman – often by necessity – chooses to breastfeed her child in public, it challenges the power structures not just between men and women but also between women themselves. I am then reminded of what bell hooks says about patriarchy, “it has no gender.”

The way in which breastfeeding women are treated in public spaces. highlights three things– the pervasiveness of patriarchal expectations, the way it pits women against each other; and the fact that patriarchy is deeply embedded in a sociocultural context: how it screams at a woman, simply because she chooses to feed her child under her own authority and terms.

About Challenging Patriarchy

The Challenging Patriarchy programme is a 12-month capacity strengthening initiative for young feminists in East Africa. The programme aims to build a cohort of young feminists through enhanced feminist advocacy capacity strengthening, who understand and challenge patriarchy as it affects their lived realities. Learn more about the programme here.

Author bio

Elizabeth is a feminist lawyer and organiser with interest and expertise in human rights law, feminist theory and project management.  Her work focuses on addressing barriers to women’s involvement in economic activities; using feminist tools of analysis to examine and understand systemic injustices and their manifestations; and interrogating the intersection of economic exploitation and gender oppression. She’s worked on issues pertaining to trafficking and economic justice, including business, human rights and access to justice for women, children, and sexual minorities.