I've written about my own personal breastfeeding journey several times over the past few years, the first time a few weeks after I had had my first and then more recently a couple of articles on tandem nursing, one over on Mamazou. During my own journey I also became interested in the trials and tribulations of that other women were experiencing while breastfeeding. Mainly the issues of breastfeeding in public becoming taboo, people pushing formula over breastmilk or vice versa, and just the fact that feeding one's child has become such a huge industry that everyone thinks they can have an opinion on. When one of my old friends, María Isabel, gave birth to her first child earlier this year, she also experienced many issues in her home country of Guatemala, so much so that she set up an organization called Pechos Libres (translates to "free breasts"). I recently read a study that showed that Hispanic women in the US are the most likely to breastfeed and remain breastfeeding, and I had always thought that in it was much less frowned upon so to speak in Latin and Central American countries. Was I wrong! It's been a real eye opener to me, following some of the articles on the Pechos Libres Facebook page, and talking to María Isabel about why she and a few other people started this organization.
From the Inside: How did the Pechos Libres organization begin?
María Isabel Carrascosa: It all started with a blog (I write a blog on a digital paper here in Guatemala called Plaza Publica). The first entry I wrote about breastfeeding was a sort of analysis of myself. María was 40 days old and I needed to go back to my office and start life again, and I kept wondering why it was so weird for me to breastfeed in public without something to cover my breast. And I discovered it was really auto-censorship. Here racism and class-based prejudices are still part of the culture, so if you are poor and indigenous than it is normal for you to be seen breastfeeding. On the contrary if you are educated and "white or of Spanish decedent" than it is considered as something improper. A friend of mine read the column and he proposed to take some pictures in a restaurant and start a small campaign. We took the pictures and I wrote another entry on my blog and we started the page on Facebook.
FTI: Why the need for such an organization in Guatemala (or other Central American countries for that matter)?
MIC: It is important to be coherent as a society. Nobody denies the benefits of breastfeeding but if you dare do it in public you will get looks for many reasons. You will get looks from men sexualizing breasts and nipples, from women who think you are being an exhibitionist plus all the racism and class-based prejudices I mentioned already. If you don´t talk about it, if you don't question all these social paradigms then you will for sure stop breastfeeding by the 3rd or 4th month because it is impossible to stay at home 24/7.
FTI: In the US there seems to be a huge divide between what the general public says is the best and what is actually pushed on you in hospitals. Women are finding that there are more and more unnecessary c-sections performed and more and more formula pushed on them in the early days. This has given birth (!) to what we call "baby friendly" hospitals where women can be sure that they will not be subjected to unnecessary interventions and will receive all the necessary help to establish a good breastfeeding relationship from day 1. Do you have anything like that? (These hospitals are not widespread here at all).
In these countries it is important to make a clear difference between rural and urban life, if not you risk making the uneducated generalization that childbirth and breastfeeding is treated the same in both areas. Here most woman in the rural areas do not attend hospitals, they give birth at their homes with comadronas (doulas) from their communities. Women in the more urban cities do have these problems you mention. There has being some discussion on obstetric violence, but not enough I reckon. (For more information see here and here)
FTI: You mentioned to me that breastfeeding had become something of a class-related and possibly racist issue in Guatemala. Can you explain in more detail please?
MIC: Traditionally indigenous women don´t use a blouse to cover their bodies so there is a connection between exposure of the breast and indigenous women, therefore exposing oneself in public is consider something exclusive to indigenous women/poor.
FTI: What are your intentions with Pechos Libres?
MIC: The original intention is to talk about these subjects, women here argue that they do not like to breastfeed in public because in general they do not like to expose themselves, they argue that it´s because they were taught not to show their bodies, but at the same time they do wear sexy clothes... It is incoherent because there is nobody to show them that they are acting based on paradigms.
FTI: Here in the US there are several support groups for breastfeeding women, free of charge, like La Leche League and WIC. Do you have any type of support like that?
MIC: La Leche League is huge here as well.
FTI: One of my Hispanic friends mentioned a while ago that while there were many English language "mommy blogs" or informational websites for new parents, there were barely any in Spanish, even though Spanish is spoken in so many countries. Are you hoping to make a change there?
Still as I mentioned before, try to imagine how many people read here and even more difficult: how many have access to the Internet.
If you would like to follow and support the Pechos Libres movement you can check them out on Facebook here, and if you have any questions for them please don't hesitate to contact them through the Facebook message service from their page. The last statement from María Isabel really strikes a chord with me - while we have become so used to immediately checking our smartphones for information whenever we have a question, we forget that there are many places in the world where people do not have constant internet access. We, for one, talk to the girls' abuelita on the phone in Mexico and send her prints of the girls via regular mail, otherwise she wouldn't even know what they look like.
And while we in the US and Europe continue our work to #normalizebreastfeeding again it is interesting to see that women all over the world are starting and continuing their own movements. I found this really interesting article from 2014 that discusses the global attitudes towards breastfeeding in public, and it is well worth a read if that is something you are interested in.