New Indonesia Law Gives Babies “The Right to Breastmilk”

Try to prevent an Indonesian woman from breastfeeding her baby, and you could face jail time. Indonesia’s new Health Law, which went into effect in October, is one of the world’s most aggressive promotions of breastfeeding. The Indonesian Breastmilk Coalition quotes the law [pdf] as stating that “every infant shall have the right to be exclusively breastfed from birth for six months, except on medical indications,” and that “during breastfeeding, the family, government, local government and community must fully support the mother’s infant by providing time and special facilities…at the workplace and public facility places.”

The law levies fines of up to 100 million rupees (11,100 U.S. dollars) and a prison sentence of up to a year for anyone who hinders breastfeeding. If a corporation prevents a woman from breastfeeding, it can be fined for three times as much and can have its business permit revoked.

Tari Tritarayati of Indonesia’s Ministry of Health is quoted by BBC News as saying that the law “will also regulate milk [formula] companies, to ensure they don’t give incentives to health care workers to push their products.”

All in all, the law aims to carve out physical space for nursing mothers and infants in the workplace and in public facilities, push back on aggressive marketing from formula companies, and make exclusive breastfeeding of infants standard practice throughout the country.

Could Mothers Be Jailed?
Some early reports on the law suggested that if a woman chose not to breastfeed she could be jailed or fined. Officials and breastfeeding activists quickly responded, denying that women would be prosecuted. According to them, the law is intended to empower mothers, preemptively battling employers and public facilities managers who might not want to make concessions to nursing mothers.

The Jakarta Post, an English-language Indonesian newspaper, quotes Minarto, director of community nutrition at the Ministry of Health, saying that the law “ensures a mother’s right” to breastfeed and that mothers themselves would not be prosecuted. “We provide them with knowledge and in the end, we hope they make the right choice,” he told the paper.

Despite these assurances, I (and no doubt many Indonesian mothers) would like to see a specific clause excluding mothers from prosecution. Framing the law as asserting a baby’s right to breastfeed for six months does seem as if it could be used against mothers even if that was not the original intention of those who wrote and promoted the law.

Breastfeeding Benefits
Breastfeeding has a plethora of benefits for babies and mothers, including preventing infections in babies, aiding infants’ brain development and strengthening their immune systems, lowering mothers’ risks of cardiovascular disease and certain kinds of cancers, and acting as a natural contraceptive by releasing ovulation-suppressing hormones. Breastfeeding is also important because the alternative, infant formula, can be dangerous if it’s mixed with impure water. Besides all that, breastmilk is free — an enormous benefit for poor women trying to give their babies the best possible nutrition.

All these benefits are especially important in Indonesia, which has high rates of poverty and childhood malnutrition. In 2008, Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported that over 13 million Indonesian children suffered from malnutrition, and in some districts “about 50 percent of infants and young children are underweight.”

Addressing Structural Obstacles
Despite its many benefits, there are also personal and structural challenges to breastfeeding. Women can face medical challenges, like being unable to produce enough milk for their babies or experiencing pain when nursing. Nursing is also dangerous for women who are HIV positive or who have tuberculosis, because the infection can be transmitted to their baby.

Women who can and want to breastfeed also face structural challenges, which proponents of the Health Law say it addresses. Most obviously, requiring workplaces to provide time and facilities for breastfeeding mothers — on pain of fines and losing their business licenses — should allow women to continue working while they have young infants. “It is very difficult as a working woman to breastfeed my child for six months,” one young mother told BBC News, “The factory where I work doesn’t have the necessary facilities, and they don’t care about us to be honest.” Hopefully, with this law they will be forced to care.

Providing education and preventing misinformation about breastfeeding are also structural issues. Women need information on how to breastfeed, and need to know that breastfeeding is a better option than formula when it’s feasible. BBC News quotes a health worker teaching Jakarta women about breastfeeding, who says that at first the mothers didn’t believe her. “They told me they had seen commercials on TV saying formula milk was better,” she says. The new Health Law intends to prevent milk formula companies from aggressively marketing formula directly to new mothers and providing incentives to health care workers so they’ll encourage mothers to use formula.

This law is also important because it affirms nursing women’s right to exist in public, carving out space for breastfeeding mothers instead of relegating them to perching in bathrooms stalls or staying home. In the United States, breastfeeding mothers are labeled “obscene” by Facebook, thrown out of Dunkin’ Donuts, and mocked on television. In light of this kind of pushback, it’s encouraging to see a government demanding accommodations for nursing mothers, both for the accommodations themselves and as a statement of women’s right to fully participate in public life — even when they’re lactating.

This is not to say that the law is a silver bullet. It’s not even completely clear how exactly the law will be enforced. For instance, I’m concerned that there will need to be provisions to keep employers from circumventing penalties by refusing to hire women of childbearing age; BBC News wants to know how companies will be checked to ensure they’re complying with the standards. I’d also like to see “mothers won’t be prosecuted” spelled out in the law.

There are still questions to be resolved, and it will be informative to see how and where the implementation of this law succeeds and where it does not. If it is enforced well, and especially if other countries learn from it, the law could have a significant positive effect on the health of millions of women and babies.

Photo of baby nursing is from mylissa's flickr, reused with thanks by Creative Commons Attribution License.

71 comments

Lika S.
Lika P7 years ago

Indonesia is doing this? :) In Japan, the women are discrete about it, but, if a woman is breast feeding, you politely look away.

Here, people are so freaky it's not funny. I actually had some lady tell me that breast feeding moms should stay home, because it's not right. Or that they should go to the bathroom. That is so wrong.

When it's discrete, just accept it. Why are there issues about it? I encourage that mothers breast feed if possible, and if not, then use formula. Sometimes it's not a good fit. I also had a pump, and supplemented with formula.

SEND
Walter F.
Walter F.7 years ago

A giant step in the right direction.Anybody who objects to a woman breastfeeding in public must have a sick and perverse mind.

SEND
Manuela B.
Manuela B7 years ago

and to think Indonesia leads the world in promoting what is the most normal and natural thing to do... makes you wonder doesn't it.....

SEND
Jami Winn
Jami Winn7 years ago

i am fairly confident that so long as the humans have been on this earth they have been breastfeeding their babies and i can say that the previous generation was breastfed to

SEND
ilse diels
.7 years ago

I dont see why women cant breastfeed, I guess culture. In my mind its not up to the country to decide but up to the woman, where else does the milk go :)

SEND
Amanda K.
Amanda K7 years ago

thanks

SEND
Sundeep Shah
Sundeep Shah7 years ago

thanks

SEND
Glenda A.
Glenda A.7 years ago

Way to go Indonesia!!!!!!

SEND
Jose Ramon Fisher Rodrigu

Not a perfect measure, but an interesting step to take.

SEND
Marilyn L.
Marilyn L7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

SEND