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Does Gilu Joseph’s Breastfeeding Photo Bring Any Practical Solutions To The Problem?

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I remember when I first wrote an article on Momspresso, India’s leading online platform for mothers, one reader commented that I shouldn’t be writing so extensively about breastfeeding and I replied if it was wrong or taboo to talk about it.

Breastfeeding is a natural process that is important both for the well-being of the mother and baby. I have no qualms at all talking about breasts or breastfeeding as long as they help another individual. I remember an aunt of mine who remarked, rather sermonised to us children back then how society has over-sexualised breasts. Their sole purpose is for the nourishment of babies. Period.

Recently, Gilu Joseph’s breastfeeding photo on the Malayalam magazine Grihalakshmi’s cover page became a heated topic of discussion. We’ve seen celebrities from Angelina Jolie to Lisa Haydon closer home promote public breastfeeding and rightly so! There is nothing wrong except your perspective. Using their privileged position as a celebrity, they are making a strong social statement that breastfeeding is a natural phenomenon and there is nothing sexual about it.

While I personally thought that Gilu Joseph’s breastfeeding photo was completely natural and shot beautifully, I have certain reservations about public breastfeeding. By showing a no-holds-bar photo or video of breastfeeding, are we normalising or furthering the stereotypes attached to the sexualisation of breasts?

Where did I fall on this colourful spectrum of the nebulous milky way, I wondered. I was right in the centre seeing half-truths on both sides of the heated argument.

Personally, I am not against the breastfeeding photo. The mother has every right to shoot this photo and make a bold statement about normalizing breastfeeding. I am in full support of extended breastfeeding and child-led weaning. I am cool with breasts and cleavage. I am cool with talking about breastfeeding and the various choices mothers make. Those who want to breastfeed – cool! Those who don’t – still cool! You know what’s best for your baby! You’re their Mama, after all! But, I have a certain line that I won’t cross when it comes to discussing breastfeeding. I cannot post a photo or Vlog of my breastfeeding ritual and share it with the world and make claims of normalising breastfeeding in the mainstream culture.

I have reservations because of two reasons. One, because I am not entirely convinced if it will have any major impact on people’s perceptions or serve any practical solution and two, because of public etiquette.

Like the real world, the internet is filled with all kinds of people. The reason we put all those child filters on our computer system is because we want out children to stay far away from the dangers of the world – paedophiles, perverts, voyeurs and what not! Similarly, in an attempt to normalise breastfeeding and change the perception of society, are we not perpetuating those very same stereotypes that we fight against? You are giving exactly what the pervert or voyeur wants to see. Is this the best or the only way to normalise breastfeeding?

Is it even practically possible to dictate to others which part of the human anatomy can be sexualised and not? How can we tell men and women what they should or should not be sexualising inside their heads? Can we really control others’ instinctive sexual urges?

Every mother in the world understands that breastfeeding is normal. Like everyone else, mothers fall into the various range of personalities and cultures. While hard-core liberals may demand the ban on breastfeeding rooms claiming it is an act of injustice by patriarchy, there are women who are genuinely not comfortable with public breastfeeding and prefer utmost privacy. Would women in hijab or from a traditional bent of mind or introvert personalities be comfortable with open breastfeeding?

I am not a hijab-wearing woman, or hold a traditional bent of mind or have an introverted personality, but I would still never openly breastfeed unless there is a dire need to do so. Breastfeeding, for me, is not just feeding the baby. It is more than that – it is an intimate bonding ritual akin to meditation. Like meditation, I cannot focus on my baby or us in the midst of people glaring overtly and covertly at my breasts in public especially here in India.

Public breastfeeding is a controversial topic. I might be in the minority but I see open breastfeeding also as an element of public etiquette. Would my act cause some form of discomfort or embarrassment to others in the public space? I remember how uncomfortable I felt when a random man flashed his private parts in public. While breastfeeding is completely a natural process, we need to be mindful of everyone’s sentiments in a public space. I’ve heard women in favour of public breastfeeding argue when we can feed a child in public with rice or candy, why can’t we breastfeed a baby in public openly? And, I totally understand their rightful argument as well.

Public breastfeeding is not banned in India. The country is quite liberal in this aspect. It is a common sight to find women from lesser privileged strata of the society breastfeed their babies in public spaces freely without any disturbance or objection from anybody. They have no access to toilets, leave alone breastfeeding rooms. Yes, many women hailing from higher privileged classes of the society don’t breastfeed their babies in full public view as they have easy access to private breastfeeding rooms. And, that unfair distinction and prejudice is a major problem that needs to be addressed and resolved.

Looking at it from that purview of public etiquette and not through the lens of patriarchy alone, I am in favour of exclusive breastfeeding rooms that are accessible to every woman on this planet. By the way, I have attended to nature’s call among the trees while on bus trips and even breastfed in public when there were no exclusive breastfeeding rooms around. I can vouch for the fact that it is not such a blissful experience after all. We definitely need more public toilets and breastfeeding rooms for our own comfort.

Ideally, it is great to have everyone view breasts and more so, breastfeeding in a non-sexual light. I think the photo is aesthetically shot and shows breastfeeding in a beautiful light. As a mother, I find nothing offensive about it. But it is a tall order to demand (and many may argue, an impractical one as well) and expect everyone to view the photo in the same light. The more practical solution which is also the need of the hour is more public breastfeeding rooms for women across all strata of the society.


Author’s Note: What is your take on this subject? I would love to read your comments. If you like the blog, please share with your friends. Please do follow my page to know when I post next. Thank you and see you again!

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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.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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.

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