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This year’s theme for World Breastfeeding Week is “BREASTFEEDING: A Key to Sustainable Development”. It is linked to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations.

Research has shown that breastfeeding has benefits not only for mothers and babies but also for economies. According to the recent Lancet Breastfeeding Series, the benefits of breastfeeding are experienced by all mothers, babies and toddlers everywhere. These benefits may also result in economic gains for countries at all income levels. By increasing the number of mothers who breastfeed for six months or longer, nearly 820 000 lives as well as $302 Billion annually, or 0.49% of the world’s Gross National Income could be saved. One third of respiratory infections and almost half of all diarrhoea episodes in low and middle-income countries would be reduced. The report states that children who are breastfed longer have been found to have higher intelligence than those who are breastfed for shorter periods.

The rate of exclusive breastfeeding up to six months is only 8% in South Africa, one of the lowest in the world. Our neighbour Swaziland’s rate is 44% and Tanzania 50%. In 2011, at the launch of the Tshwane Declaration which supports exclusive breastfeeding, our Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi stated that we were one of twelve countries in the world with an increasing infant mortality rate and acknowledged that breastfeeding was a vital key in addressing this.

The Health Department also identified the challenge faced by working mothers to continue breastfeeding after maternity leave as one of the barriers to exclusive breastfeeding. Mothers who chose to continue breastfeeding when they return to work after maternity leave often face negative economic consequences. Research shows that breastfeeding mothers are perceived to be less productive and therefore passed over for promotions. Other mothers “chose” to take on part-time or “family-friendly” jobs and these are mostly low paying jobs. Therefore when we promote breastfeeding it has to go hand-in-hand with protecting women’s jobs and their income in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals to fight poverty, inequality and injustice.

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I appeal to all South Africans to encourage and support #BreastfeedingAnywhereAnytime because it benefits our whole society. Share you breastfeeding story or Brestfie with me with the hashtag #BreastfeedingAnywhereAnytime, #WBW2016.

Sizile Makola is a breastfeeding enthusiast, follow her on twitter @sizilemakola and facebook @sizilendlovu

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