Saturday, August 18, 2012

Biting the breast

LET’S not forget what the monsoon rain brought out: disaster and human spirit.

One who inspires is Rina Nato. This 33-year-old Filipina nurses babies who get hungry while their mothers are out looking for money or food.

Days after the flash floods that hit Metro Manila, many of the families evacuating at the temporary shelter set up at the St. Francis Chapel in Cainta, Rizal still could not return to their homes but needed more than the donations that came their way.
Women left their babies with grandmothers, who had to “fake breastfeeding” to quiet their hungry cries.

This dilemma did not escape Rina, a social worker, reported Tara Quismundo in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s (PDI) Aug. 17, 2012 issue.

In Rina, I caught more than a glimpse of the Filipino’s sense of “pakikipagkapwa-tao”.

Fellowship, or sharing the lot of others, is a value one expects of but sees rarely in public servants. Even then, I do not know of any civil service code that requires a government employee to share something as intimate as one’s milk in the line of duty.

Yet Rina, a mother of a three-month-old infant, knew instinctively what the hungry babies and their equally desperate grandmothers needed: milk that’s nutritious, safe and free.

In the rudimentary conditions of an evacuation center, it must be impossible to hygienically store expressed milk. The PDI article also pointed out that Rina knew formula milk could not be distributed as aid, in keeping with the provisions of the Philippine Milk Code.

The article does not explain Rina’s decision to respond to duty unconventionally. Perhaps her training and immersion as a social worker makes her more sensitive to others. Or nature might have endowed her with an abundance of breast milk, more than what her own child needs. There’s a natural synchronicity that makes breast milk flow in answer to the hunger of one’s own, as experienced by mothers who are still at work while their babies are left at home.

Often, when hunger is sated and the infant sleeps or plays, the milk does not shut off automatically. Mothers are encouraged to safely store this milk for later feedings. Others let the milk flow until it stops, stimulated anew when the infant grows hungry.

As the convention goes, the more a mother nurses, the more milk she produces. This inexhaustible supply of free, quality sustenance for the first 36 months of a child makes breast milk a virtual fountain of life.

By offering to be a wet nurse, Rina is reversing an oppressive patriarchal tradition. The ancient practice of poor women acting as wet nurses for the infants of rich families goes back to agrarian or medieval societies where such “privilege” was considered as socially necessary: rich women had to keep their figures after giving birth and poor women had to survive, even if it meant their own infants grew sickly or died, subsisting on inferior substitutes because the social order denied them their own mother’s milk.

No victim of patriarchy, Rina’s sacrifice is not without cost. Even if nature graces you with an abundance of milk, it can be an actual physical pain to nurse. Hungry infants will attack nipples with the same gusto whether these are made by nature or technology. All too soon, an infant’s gums will sprout teeth, which can be used with surprising efficiency to grip and pull and gnaw.

Yet, more daunting than a queue of hungry babies waiting for their turn to nurse is the consolidated House Bill on Breastfeeding, which may yet amend the present Milk Code and the Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009.

If passed into law, the amended Milk Code will narrow the application of breast feeding from infants falling within the first 36 months to the first six months only, allow donations of artificial breast milk substitutes during emergencies, make lactation breaks at the work place unpaid, and generally bring back mothers and infants within the orbit of well-funded and aggressive marketing campaigns of milk formula companies.

How many Rina Natos will we need then to offset the damage of another disaster of our own making?

( 0917-3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebus Aug. 19, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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