Male breastfeeding culture in Uganda must be taken seriously

After preliminary research into men in Uganda drinking their partners’ breast milk, Dr Rowena Merritt of Kent’s Centre for Health Services Studies, has elaborated on the worrying findings and how more research is needed. She said:

‘What surprised me, and disappointed me in equal measures, was the fact that the behaviour of men taking the breast milk away from their babies had been publicly talked about in 2018, but no one appeared to be doing anything about it. The Minister of Health, who first so bravely brought this issue to light, stressed that this was a new, and unacceptable behaviour.

‘I was determined to conduct research into the behaviour, and most importantly, generate support and funds to try and tackle it. Maybe it is being a mother myself, but the thought that babies were being given formula milk, instead of their mother’s milk, or that the father would feed before their new-born child, outraged me.

‘It was unbelievably easy to recruit men to talk to, something we never expected for an underground, secretive behaviour. They told us that drinking the breast milk helped them relax, and they told of how the behaviour was ‘addictive’, and they were ‘obsessed’ with drinking the milk. I was struck by the strength of the words they used, as if it was the drug of choice.

‘However, what shocked me the most was the reaction of the healthcare professionals. At the start of our interviews with them, they would flat out deny the behaviour existed in Uganda. When we reminded them that their own Minister of Health had talked about it in parliament, then laughed nervously and often stopped making eye contact. They then all went on to talk about mothers they had seen who had malnourished and had poorly babies or ripped and infected nipples because of the practice. NGO staff had a similar reaction and consistent stories.

‘Through the research, we found out that the women are not asked if they want to feed their partners; the partner just initiates it and takes silence as consent. If the mother dares to question it, very manipulating words are often used: ‘This is how I show you love and how you show me love’. There appeared to be no concern for the mother’s or baby’s wellbeing; the men simply feel they have a right. As one of the fathers told us, when asked if he was worried the mother might become very tired or that the baby might not get the milk they deserve, ‘If you feed a cow well, they produce much milk. I feed my wife well’.

My fear is, if this remains something people simple deny or laugh nervously about, how will it ever be taken seriously? And, what worries me more, the longer this behaviour continues, the more likely it is to become part of the culture and traditions of Uganda. Then it becomes far more difficult to stop. We need research funds to understand the prevalence of this behaviour, and then we need action – and we need it fast.’

One of Dr Merritt‘s main research interests is social marketing and something termed ‘critical social marketing’ in relation to the formula milk industry. Critical social marketing involves critically investigating the impact of commercial marketing on society from a (social) marketing perspective. This information is then used to inform upstream social marketing activities such as advocacy, lobbying, policy and regulation; as well as downstream social marketing interventions designed to influence consumers or distributors.

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