South Africa’s first lady, Dr Tshepo Motsepe, has condemned the stigma associated with public breastfeeding and insists that mothers should breastfeed their babies anywhere.
“We must break down barriers, including community perceptions and beliefs, limited breastfeeding education, employers and employment spaces that do not enable breastfeeding, the perceived sophistication associated with formula feeding and the stigma associated with public breastfeeding. I often wonder, if adults can eat and enjoy their meals in public, why can’t babies do the same?” Motsepe said on Wednesday.
Motsepe, the spouse of President Cyril Ramaphosa, was speaking at the official launch of the Grow Great campaign in Johannesburg.
The multi-funder initiated campaign aims to confront the hidden challenge of chronic under-nutrition in South Africa and mobilise the nation to achieve zero-stunting by 2030.
Addressing delegates at the event, which included various leaders in civil society, academia, business and government, Motsepe said stunting is not an inevitable natural phenomenon “divinely predestined for some children on their paths of development”.
Stunting, Motsepe said, is a “disapproving reaction and response of nature to the uneven, unequal and unjust socioeconomic conditions under which millions of our compatriots strive to survive”.
“We are reminded today that maternal nutrition and infection are among the leading causes of stunting in children. In this regard, the Grow Great campaign seeks to engrave in our collective conscience as a nation our responsibility to empower women, especially, who are vulnerable both in terms of knowledge and economic status.
“We have to wage a relentless war against ignorance. We have to teach South Africans, female and male, about the basics of pregnancy and the nutritional needs of the foetus; and we have to practically assert our people’s right to a clean environment that is not a breeding ground for infectious diseases.
“South Africans need to know as well that teenage motherhood and short birth intervals can also stunt the growth of children and make them never to reach their full growth potential, mentally and physically. This means that our teenagers, both female and male, must be discouraged from early indulgence in sexual activity, especially of an unprotected nature,” Motsepe said.
She, however, warned that discouraging teenage children from engaging in sex will not work, unless “we provide them with alternatives that will enrich their lives and enhance their life chances”.
Stunting is a condition that arises from prolonged undernutrition and it affects physical and brain development. It’s defined as shortness in height for a child’s age and it can only be diagnosed by comparing the child’s measurements to standardised growth charts.
In South Africa, one in four children under the age of five are stunted.
Motsepe warned that if children are stunted, the “future of the nation is stunted [because] victims of stunting are most likely to contend with lifelong cognitive defects and to struggle at school or at places of work, if they were to be employed”.
“We simply cannot continue on this path. We need to change things urgently. And the Grow Great campaign is therefore a key to a better future,” Motsepe said.
Executive director of the Grow Great campaign, Dr Kopano Matlwa Mabaso, said that the campaign would include high-power public media and face-to-face programmes throughout the country, drawing on strategies shown to work in other countries.
“These will include a low-cost mom and baby class franchise to support parents, a resource hub for community health workers to support them to be ‘champions for children’, mobilisation of community and family support for breastfeeding, promotion of eggs as an important part of infant food from six months of age, and the use of data and stories to mobilise policy-makers and the public,” Mabaso explained.
Make breastfeeding policy visible
Registered dietitian Chantel Witten challenged citizens to go back to their workplaces and make sure that the breastfeeding policy is visible and people know about it, and that women can start calling on it.
“Unless we specifically improve the exclusive breastfeeding rate, we cannot address stunting. If we can improve breastfeeding, we will have a great start,” Witten said.
Paediatrician Dr Elmarie Malek encouraged families and communities to support expectant parents so they are well prepared for the coming baby.
“If we can walk with them side by side; if we can be companions with them in that time, they will feel supported and they would also be able to give that support to their children,” Malek said.