This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by 101reporters. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Read This If You Think Breast Milk Is ‘Disgusting’ Or Shouldn’t Be Donated

More from 101reporters

By Raina Paul for Youth Ki Awaaz:

“I haven’t heard of a human milk bank. I have a lot of excess milk which I usually express and throw away. This used to happen with my first kid,” says Rosemary, a mother of an eight-month old infant.

For Rosemary, a human milk bank is a novel concept. She says she would agree to donate her breast milk to a milk bank if she can save a child’s life.

PATH (a Mumbai based NGO) shares the story of Sheikh Afsana, who delivered a premature baby that had low birth weight and was diabetic. The baby was admitted in a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) and was fed with breast milk from the hospital’s milk bank for two weeks. Afsana was handed over her child once it gained weight, and was declared healthy. Afsana later donated her own milk to the same hospital’s human milk bank.

Sheikh Afsana. Photo credit: Tom Furtwangler, PATH
Sheikh Afsana. Photo credit: Tom Furtwangler, PATH

“The scenario is slowly changing,” says Ruchika, team leader, nutrition at PATH, who believes all babies should have access to human milk. “When mothers are helped with donor milk to save their babies, they come forward the next time they get a chance to help.”

Milk For Every Baby

The scenario Ruchika is referring to is of the glaring need for human milk in cases where the mother is unable to lactate, or the child is orphaned. Add to that those born premature, underweight or malnourished, and the need is even more strongly felt.

“There are 27 million babies born annually in the country. Among them 13%, that is 3.6 million, are preterm, and 28%, that is 7.6 million, are born with low birth weight which increases the risk of dying in the neonatal period,” says Ruchika.

The sight of tiny baby feet moving in an incubator in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) in hospitals are heart breaking to watch. It is the same when you come across infants who are often bony or born with hands and bodies smaller than that of a healthy child.

But reports indicate that babies born this way are likely to regain health if they are fed human breast milk.

“Breast milk is not only important for providing optimum nutrition, it has immune properties, not only in terms of their immediate health or growth, but cognitive development,” says Ruchika. “A child should be initiated to breast feeding within one hour of birth.”

According to UNICEF, only 25% of the newborns in India were put to breast within one hour of birth, and less than half of the children (46%) under six months of age are exclusively breastfed.

Many a times formula feeds and nutrition supplements that mimic the properties of human breast milk are used as alternatives. But they just aren’t good enough.

“Formula feeds have vitamins and minerals which are received synthetically. But in case of anti-infective properties like colostrum, which is naturally present in breast milk, there is no artificial source,” adds Ruchika, who has more than 17 years of experience in the field of Nutrition Programming, Policy and Clinical Research.

Milk Banks That Could Save Lives

India loses more children under five each year than any other country in the world. And more than half of these deaths occur in the neonatal period -the time a baby needs breast milk the most.

The country’s first milk bank was established in 1989 in Mumbai. It was the only milk bank until 2005. Even today the country has only 22 milk banks, this when countries like Brazil, with less than one fifth the population of India, have more than 200 milk banks.

A human milk bank is a service which collects, screens, processes, pasteurises and dispenses human milk donated by nursing mothers, who are not biologically related to the recipient infant. Any nursing mother can donate milk if she has surplus milk and is in good health.

The donated milk from a lactating mother is preserved under 20 degree Celsius temperature in hospitals that have milk banks.

Photo credit: Tom Furtwangler, PATH
Photo credit: Tom Furtwangler, PATH

“If donor human milk is given to the child, their chances of dying from infections are less,” says Ruchika.

India at present does not have milk banks outside hospitals. In-house milk banks provide donated human milk only to babies being treated in hospitals where those milk banks are.

“There is a need for more milk banks, there always has been. When there are NICUs and sick babies, you would prefer to have more milk banks,” says Dr. Jayashree Mondkar, professor and head of neonatology at Lokmanya Tilak Medical College and Municipal General Hospital, Mumbai.

Lack Of Awareness And Multiple Taboos

“From 2005 to 2015, there has been a rapid increase in the demand for human milk,” says Ruchika. According to a research conducted by PATH, 6 million babies stand to benefit from donor human milk. But most mothers in India are unaware of the existence of human milk banks.

With the prevalence of a nuclear family system, more women are staying alone. They do not know whom to approach if there is a requirement for breast milk.

While mothers in urban areas are still better off, young mothers in rural areas are mostly unaware about human milk banks or about donating milk.

Just ask Dr. Thalikkotti, taluk health officer, Indi Taluk in northern Karnataka.

He explains how most mothers are not in favour of accepting milk from other mothers because they fear their child might catch an infection. Also, because the person donating the milk is a stranger.

As the literacy rate is very low in taluks like Indi, lack of awareness is a major hindrance when it comes to milk banks. Due to the prevalence of traditional taboos, mothers refuse to accept donated milk.

“There are no milk banks to educate them of this alternative,” says Dr Thalkkoti. “The chances of them accepting donated milk is 50 per cent.”

Photo creditL Tom Furtwangler, PATH
Photo credit – Tom Furtwangler, PATH

Why The Need Persists

Even though the need of milk banks have been reinforced by experts, especially due to their advantage over other supplements, the country has not witnessed a considerable increase in the number of milk banks.

This can be traced to many reasons.

Some of the challenges faced in setting up milk banks are: Neonatologists and paediatricians are not aware of the concept; lack of availability of lactation consultants; limited awareness in service providers and little or no involvement of the private sector.

Also, “the private sector sometimes suggests formula feeds,” says Ruchika.

A major challenge is the pasteurising machine currently used in India, the ‘shaker water bath’, which is an imported automated pasteurising machine and “not very robust in terms of quality,” as Ruchika puts it.

The good news is that the last two years have seen a rise in awareness. A model like that in place in Brazil should be set up, stresses Ruchika. We also need ‘ambassadors’ from within communities to promote this cause.

There is no justification for a lack of infrastructure and awareness being reasons why we are losing thousands of young lives every year. Mass scale advocacy is the need of the hour and the State needs to lead the charge.

India’s babies need a lot more than just help with their baby steps. Will the government please step up?

Raina Paul is a Bangalore based independent journalist and a member of, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

You must be to comment.

More from 101reporters

Similar Posts

By Sumant

By Divy Bhagia

By India Development Review (IDR)

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below