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Women on the frontlines: breastfeeding and human rights

Breastfeeding at School

cross Canadian communities women are paving the way to eliminate discrimination against breastfeeding mothers in restaurants, the workplace and schools.

Mary Anne Domarchuk of Nanaimo, BC, was asked to stop breastfeeding her 9 month old son at her daughter's Valentine's Day school lunch. The school, she was told, was public property, and it was her duty to respect public interest. In other words, breastfeeding is an activity best done out of sight of the interested public! She stood her ground and requested that a policy be made regarding breastfeeding in elementary schools. Five months later, a breastfeeding policy was drafted by the school board.

The Nanaimo Times quickly became the moral battleground for community members wanting to voice their opinions on the issue. Some compared breastfeeding to various bodily functions, stating that breastfeeding in a local school is akin to a man dropping his pants in public. Also, one upset woman stated that Ms. Domarchuk was an "egotistical exhibitionist" for pursuing the matter (Hope, Nanaimo Times, June 14, 1996). These responses aside, many supportive members of the Nanaimo community wrote to say that breastfeeding is beautiful, natural and that the schools are a great place for this activity as it provides the perfect opportunity for children to be educated in infant feeding. Ironically, it seems that only the parents at the school meeting were upset; "the kids just carried on with their business." (Nanaimo Times, June 7, 1996)

With role models such as Ms. Domarchuk, maybe breastfeeding will finally be seen as a woman's right to exercise anywhere.

Not surprisingly, the right to breastfeed is also being waged in the workplace. Take for example the case of Michelle Poirier who has been combatting her previous employer, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, right up to the Supreme Court of BC for approximately 6 years. It seems that Ms. Poirier was asked to cease breastfeeding at work as a number of co-workers complained about her doing this activity at a lunchtime work organized seminar for International Women's Week (Ah, the irony!). Finally some progress has been made. The BC Court has agreed that the Ministry's request was discriminatory against the female sex and that there should not be any discrimination against the time and location for breastfeeding in the workplace.

These examples demonstrate that as breastfeeding advocates, we have a lot of work to do to promote breastfeeding in the community as a human right; breastfeeding must be seen as a natural interaction between a mother and child. It is the responsibility of the community to embrace and support those mothers that chose to contribute this natural gift.

In the words of a fellow breastfeeding supporter, Alessandra Fytyshtan (Letter to the Editor, The Ottawa Citizen, October 18, 1994), "My suggestion for people who can't handle the sight of an innocent baby having its lunch is: go eat in the bathroom. Maybe then will people understand that negative attitudes from community members are an infringement upon the human rights of breastfeeding mothers."

"It takes strong women and supportive spouses, families, friends and communities to keep breastfeeding alive in our society." (Domarchuk, 1996) INFACT Canada salutes these women for coming out of the "watercloset" with their breastfed babies held high!

Michelle Poirier versus the BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs