13th Breastfeeding and Feminism Conference, 21st – 23rd March 2018 http://breastfeedingandfeminism.org/
Centre for Women’s Health and Wellness and Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute.
Report by Ger Cahill, IBCLC, ILCA Board Member
I was given the opportunity, through my work with ILCA, and with some financial help from ALCI, to attend this conference as the dates just preceded the ILCA March Board meeting. The theme of this years conference was The Dance of Nurture in a complex World, How biology, gender and social context shape how we nourish our children, and WOW was the whole conference as complex as the title sounded!
This conference is a place where people from disciplines as wide ranging as Anthropology and Media can present their research as it relates to Infant feeding.
There was so much new research I was spinning – there were 2/3 concurrent sessions on each of the 3 days, we had to choose one piece to attend from a choice of 7/8 at each of these sessions. So a lot of researchers and research pieces being discussed and disseminated. The research all took place within a feminist context so was mostly qualitative, though there were some quantitative pieces. There were also film showings and an exhibition of photos all related to breastfeeding so a whole lot to absorb and assimilate.
The keynote speaker Penny Van Estrik set the tone on the 1st day with her piece entitled “the Dance of Nurture” where she explored how a framing of dancing and breastfeeding within a nurturing role can help us to see breastfeeding as the foundation of solid relationships in life. She explained that just as dance can be a metaphor for interactedness and relatedness, with its stress on rhythms and cycles, that can be an expression and emotion. Then so can breastfeeding be a metaphor for nurturing. Nurturing is carework, but it is often not measured and there is no economic structure put on it or breastfeeding. She very much put breastfeeding and nurturing as cyclical and evolutionary practices which we have been watching being eroded but we don’t understand or even know what we are losing. She talked about mothers now not being connected to their babies as they spend time on their iPhones being connected with the outside world, but perhaps missing some of their babies cues. Penny has taught Nutritional and Feminist anthropology at York University, Toronto and has a long history of advocacy work in breastfeeding and child health. Her latest book the Dance of Nurture explores further the issues explored in her talk. My copy is already ordered, amongst some of her other writings and books.
The rest of the conference confronted privilege, explored queer theory, indigenous knowledge and a feminist approach to technology and reproductive justice. Reproductive justice was particularly interesting to me in view of our upcoming 8th amendment and it’s accompanying debates. The talk looked at Reproductive rights and social justice through an intersectional lens, the things that jumped out at me was that individual service delivery is both a human right and a legal right but has been based on both colonial and masculine hegemonies at a global level. It was shocking to learn, how some women in the justice system in the U.S. give birth in shackles (87 reported cases recently) and this is because of statutes that still exist from colonial times. This was actually a most disturbing talk and colleagues from Pakistan and Malaysia (also ILCA board Members) were as disturbed as I was and could entirely relate to the ‘colonial’ aspects of the talk, which, though U.S. focused, certainly had echoes for each of us in our own country contexts.
The next panel took us to a completely different place, Water and Weather Insecurity – perhaps you can begin to understand the reeling – this was global in focus – water insecurity exists all over the world and has far reaching consequences, in terms of infant health and the practices surrounding it. The researchers talked about family’s spending money on water, which would otherwise be spent on food, mothers spending a long time looking for water, which they would otherwise spend feeding their babies and thus other longer issues such as growth, and social disadvantage can stem from this.
The disaster that happened in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricane Maria and the continuing struggles that this one time 1st world nation is now experiencing was shocking. This was presented by a resident, an IBCLC, who has been living through it and who gathered the statistics and the stories. 40% of homes still have no running water or electricity and 40% of the road intersections still have no traffic lights, These people are feeling completely let down by their own local government and the federal government in America. The bright spot in this was the growth of women-led support groups, regardless of feeding method. With little access to milk powder as so many shops are closed, the milk sharing that has been taking place and the support they are giving to one another is what has been keeping most of the residents going as they face into the next hurricane season which is fast approaching.
There was then a talk on the issues facing Haitian refuges who have been moving up through the United Stated over many years and who, because of the political situation have now immigrated, en masse, into Canada. An issue I have never even heard of at all, the Canadian system has been overwhelmed, and doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the issues, but is also unwilling in many cases to engage with those on the ground who could help, especially when it comes to birth and feeding issues. A very harrowing case study was outlined which made me think of the refugees who have entered our own country and I wondered do any of the advocates for breastfeeding in Ireland, have any idea about who is supporting these women from Syria and elsewhere around birth or breastfeeding? Definitely an area that needs some research!
The panel talked about the need for pictorial info-graphics and information packs, about building informal and community capacity in place of and to counter white savior syndrome, structural and gender violence and institutional racism, intended or otherwise.
We need groundwork to happen before the emergencies, thinking about our own emergencies over the last year or so I wondered do the emergency feeding issues of our dairy industry come before those of our vulnerable infants, is Infant feeding even represented on our Emergency Task Force?
So as you can see a lot to take on board, and this was only Day 1. Talks over the next few days encompassed many areas, Conflicts of Interest, Transgender breastfeeding, the impact of Intersectionality on breastfeeding, Post Natal Depression, Pumping and the commodification of breastfeeding tools, Milk Sharing and looking at how people feel about this. Implicit Bias and Clinical Breastfeeding care, Improving workplace breastfeeding support, Body autonomy/Nursing aversion and agitation and why consent in all its forms matters to these women, Addiction, breastfeeding beyond the first year, lack of physician training in breastfeeding and human lactation – just to give a flavor of the talks and panels I managed to get to!
The milk sharing talk explored the themes around the stories that women who share human milk tell, both the receivers and the givers. Milk sharing being a part of carework makes for it being a deeply emotional and intersubjective ritual for both parties.
One piece I would like to see replicated here in Ireland was a qualitative piece about the experiences of the NICU parent’s perspective on the care received in order to facilitate their return home.
The very last panel on the last day was also a highlight for me. It’s was about Social media and had very interesting titles
- “Discursive formation of white feminism, privilege and visibility with the #free the nipple campaign to change social media nudity policies”
- “Breastfeeding and media – exploring 200 years of conflicting discourses.”
- “Patching the Gaps – how online support shapes breastfeeding practices in Poland”
Three pieces of great research, grounded in women’s experiences, and a great way to finish an amazing conference. So this is a special call to those who do research to send in their abstracts to this conference and help to make this a truly global conference. They tried really hard to make it global, but apparently they just don’t get enough submissions from other countries, though among their non U.S. entries this year were submission from Malaysia, Thailand, England, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Poland, Sweden, South Africa and Brazil.
The range of topics covered in this conference, law to gender, race, ethnicity, to workplace issues, to mental health and to policy and its implementation, this conference showed that the sky is the limit when it comes to choosing a research topic that relates to infant feeding and human lactation.
To have met so any amazing women from different backgrounds and to discuss breastfeeding for 3 days and to hear so much research presented was a real privilege and I really hope that others will attend and report on this conference from Ireland in the future and also take some of the ideas presented here and bring them to our context.