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Nursing mothers in Hong Kong shamed in public

There is little provision for breastfeeding in the city or even in churches

Nursing mothers in Hong Kong shamed in public

Connie Chan, vice president of Hong Kong Catholic Breastfeeding Association, promoting breastfeeding to Catholics. (Photo from Catholic Breastfeeding Association Facebook Page)

Ann Fung, Hong Kong
Hong Kong

March 21, 2017

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In August 2016, a taxi driver wrote on a Facebook page for fellow taxi drivers that a woman passenger asked him to drive around for 30 minutes and drop her off at the same location she got into the taxi. The woman said she had to breastfeed her child as there was no space in her office to do so.

Another taxi driver secretly videoed a passenger breastfeeding in the rear compartment and uploaded the video on to the internet. While the first incident led to a debate the second led to condemnation. Either way, people agreed that public breastfeeding was a concern for women in Hong Kong.

For a long time, Hong Kong has suffered a lack of adequate nursing rooms and there is no legislation for their provision.

The Hong Kong Women Development Social Policy Research Committee released a survey March 5 that found that among 431 respondents, 75 percent said there were insufficient public nursing rooms in the city and nearly 80 percent thought that there was not enough public information about breastfeeding.

"Many mothers say that even when they cover up with a napkin, breastfeeding in public draws strange glares. Nursing rooms in some shopping malls are only big enough for one mother to use. The next user must wait at least 45 minutes. But how can the baby wait?" Ruby Lau, a Catholic doctor who works at a maternal health center, told

Nursing mothers often complain of being shamed for breastfeeding in public and even in churches.

Connie Chan, vice president of Hong Kong Catholic Breastfeeding Association, said one mother sought help from her organization. "She was driven away when she breastfed during Mass. A parish worker brought her to a function room but a group came in and said they had booked the room. The mother was so frustrated she cried as she was driven away again," Chan said.

"We approached the parish priest but he said helplessly that the faithful would complain if mothers exposed their breasts. But the fact was that this mother was using a covering napkin. Some married deacons understand and help make arrangements but some mothers would rather stay home to breastfeed babies instead of attending Mass," Chan said.

So far, the association has persuaded three parishes to set up nursing rooms. The number is far too low given that there are 87 parish churches and Mass centers in Hong Kong.

An image of the Holy Mother breastfeeding baby Jesus offered by the Hong Kong Catholic Breastfeeding Association gives nursing mothers strength. A recipient told the association that "Looking at the picture, I feel relaxed when breastfeeding. It shows the power of faith."


Insistence of mothers

Rose Cheung, a former journalist, said that she developed postnatal depression after giving birth to her first child about 15 years ago when her family did not support her breastfeeding.

When she returned to work after maternity leave, another problem was that she could only collect milk in public toilets which she felt unhygienic. In the end, she changed to a job that allowed her to go home during lunchtime to breastfeed her baby.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about breastfeeding in society and long working hours and work pressure causes great stress to mothers," said Cheung. 

Joining hands with the Diocesan Commission for Marriage and Family, the Hong Kong Catholic Breastfeeding Association printed an educational leaflet, citing Biblical grounds to support breastfeeding.

"Breastfeeding isn't easy. Mothers need to learn the spirit of sacrifice like Jesus since it is our duty. Breast milk is a special gift from God to help build a bond between the mother and the child," said Chan.

Another plan of theirs is to lobby the government to ban the advertisement of formula milk, especially for babies under three.

"More than 90 percent of Australian mothers breastfeed. Formula milk is only prescribed when the mother is diagnosed with a serious illness. But there is a totally different perception about formula milk in Asia," said Chan, who gave birth to her daughter in Australia.

"There are already regulations in neighboring Taiwan requiring that a certain number of public nursing rooms be available but none in Hong Kong," she added.

Denying that they are being slow to act, the Department of Health said that they have sent letters to more than 470 private organizations and enterprises to encourage the implementation of a breastfeeding policy.

In February, the Food and Health Bureau announced that the government will issue a code for the marketing of formula milk to infants under three. However, the code of practice is voluntary and without penalty.

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