United Arab Emirates forces women to breastfeed and America freaks out

 The United Arab Emirates’ Federal National Council recently passed a clause mandating women breastfeed their babies for two years as part of their new Child Rights Law. 

And, of course, the world is going crazy over the news with every North American journalists and women’s organizations rushing to condemn the move (or so it would seem by reading some of the American press).

American mommy bloggers and activists and politicians are also freaking out about how wrong it is for women, how awful for the causes of progressive parenting, and then there is that extremely rare baby who can't have breastmilk at all (because of one of the extremely rare congenital disorders).

Ironically, it comes almost simultaneous to the U.S. President, Barack Obama, giving a State of the Union specifically addressing women’s rights, the vast income inequality between the genders, and issues with maternity leave in the United States. Of course, all these same people are lauding President Obama (including myself: it is about time). I think, however, in this case America could really learn from the UAE.

Now, of course we have reason to be suspicious of the Emirate’s move mandating anything upon women—especially new mothers who are extremely vulnerable—as the Middle East doesn’t have the most progressive record on women’s rights.

The United Arab Emirates is considered by many to be a leader of women’s rights among the Arab world. According to a ranking, by Reuters, of best and worst Arabic countries for women, they rank closer to the top than the bottom.

Although with a strong cultural expectation of traditional gender roles, relatively few women in the workforce, and numerous laws geared towards ensuring women aren’t in control of their own bodies, it isn’t exactly what we would consider a mecca of female possibility or choice. 

Yet, in some important ways, the UAE is far ahead of the U.S. For instance, back to paid maternity leave: The United States is one of only a few developed countries that does not require paid maternity leave.

The Emirates mandates 45 days at full pay and there is movement to increase this. As well, looking at how women fair during and after childbirth, where the U.S. lags well behind almost the entire developed world, including the UAE. In a ranking of maternal morbidity by country the U.S. ranks 39 with 16.7 deaths per 100,000 births while the UAE ranks 26. (Sweden, by the way, is number 2 and Canada number 9 with 6.6 deaths per 100,000 births). Comparing life expectancy, the UAE also ranks better: a person is likely to live a year and half longer in the Emirates than in the US.

And, then there is breastfeeding itself. Breastfeeding provides numerous health benefits for baby and mother as well as psychological, developmental, societal, and economic benefits. Ever creditable scientific and health organization in the world including the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), and the Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) recommends women breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue for as long as it is mutually desirable.

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