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Babies force-fed to free time for fields

[Ethiopia] Woman harvesting and breastfeeding in Samre, Tigray.
When there are not enough hours in the day (file photo) (UNDP/Doninic Harcourt-Webster)

With limited access to time-saving agricultural tools and technologies, rural women in West Africa are forced to cut down on the time they spend breastfeeding, in some cases over-feeding their newborns into slumber to free time for the fields.

This is the final article in a five-part series on the role of breastfeeding in curbing infant mortality in West Africa.

In the agricultural community of Chetima Wango, 30km from Niger’s far-east city of Diffa, more than 70 percent of the women surveyed by the NGO Helen Keller International said they fed their babies nothing but breast milk for six months. Yet when IRIN asked one of the village’s four health committee volunteers, Fadji Ousmane, about breastfeeding in her community, she replied: “Our women are constantly in the fields and do not breastfeed [as often as they say]. They do not have time.”

World Health Organization (WHO) recommends feeding only breast milk to babies for six months in order to boost their immune systems and stave off malnutrition through natural nutrients and antibodies found in the milk.

In the Sahel region, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates 600,000 under-five children die from malnutrition annually.

Helen Keller International’s coordinator for Diffa, Omar Mamane, told IRIN many factors play a role in malnutrition. “Part of the problem starts in the fields.”

Milk of life

More than 1 million children can be saved every year through improved breastfeeding practices

Exclusive breastfeeding provides all nutrients a baby needs for the first months of life

Breastmilk is 80% water, 20% nutrients

300,000 babies die every year in West Africa due to poor breastfeeding

Some of the time-saving farming innovations that have been introduced worldwide have actually hurt women, according to the 2008 Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook produced by the World Bank, UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and International Fund for Agriculture Development. “Tractors and animal-drawn plows have been used by men to increase the acreage under cultivation, leaving women to struggle with an increase in weeding and harvesting, using only handheld tools,” it said.

But Niger’s breastfeeding focal point in the Ministry of Health, Karki Roumatou Adamou Arowa, dismissed agriculture as the main reason for the country’s low rate of exclusive breastfeeding – less than 5 percent. “When women head to the fields, they strap their children on them. They can breastfeed even if they are working.”

Arowa told IRIN the main problem is communities’ insistence on giving babies water in addition to breast milk during the first six months, which lessens breast milk’s therapeutic, even life-saving, power.

Rural women are responsible for half the world’s food production, including 80 percent of the food supply in sub-Saharan African, according to FAO. But they are among the last to use labour-saving equipment like mechanized mills, donkey-drawn equipment or long-handled hoes, according to FAO’s senior officer on gender and development, Diana Tempelman.

“Do the [agriculture] extension workers know about these kinds of technologies to inform the female farmers; thereafter comes the question of are they available locally; followed by, do female farmers have money?” Tempelman asked IRIN.

Next door to Niger, communities in Burkina Faso have reported feeding their newborns solid food to induce sleep in order to free time for agriculture work, said nutritionist Marcel Dabo Bengaly. “They feed their babies millet porridge,” said Bengaly, who is leading a national breastfeeding study for UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

He told IRIN women are unaware their infants’ still-forming digestive systems are ill-equipped to handle adult food. “All they know is that feeding their babies solid food buys them a few extra hours of work in the fields.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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