The World's Breastfeeding Champ?

The World's Breastfeeding Champ?

Women making clothes in a small factory, Kigali, Rwanda.

SourceTim E White/Getty

Why you should care

Rwanda is flexing strong leadership muscle — from breastfeeding to women in the workforce.

Peace Umutoni has four children and works full time as an administrative officer. When her youngest was born seven months ago, Umutoni was able to stay home and breastfeed him, thanks to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave stipulated by Rwandan law. Now back at work, she’s taking advantage of the two 30-minute breaks provided to nursing mothers. “It hasn’t been easy,” Umutoni says, noting how expressing — an alien concept in Rwanda — was a steep learning curve. But she has managed to nurse all of her children for at least a year, usually two, and exclusively for six months.

She’s not alone. This East African nation has managed to pull off an impressive double whammy. According to the World Health Organization and the World Bank, respectively:

Rwanda has the highest breastfeeding rate in the world at 87.3 percent — and it ranks in the top five for representation of women in the workforce.

For comparison’s sake, only 23 percent of mothers in the U.S. breastfeed exclusively for the same six-month period, while the U.K. comes in at a measly 1 percent. Breastfeeding has always been culturally encouraged in Rwanda, as it has in neighboring Burundi, which has picked up to 82 percent after a dive in the ’90s and early 2000s. The strong consensus, as in the U.S., is that it makes for healthier babies. Some experts note that Rwandan women have added incentives to go natural: lack of clean water or readily available, affordable formula. Rwanda’s Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

When it comes to Rwanda’s top-five ranking for women in the workforce, the country is neck and neck with the neighbors, at 51.5 percent. Burundi has held steady at around 52 percent for the past three decades. In the same period, though, Rwanda has improved from 13th in the world to fourth, despite — or, some might say because of — the devastating 1994 genocide that claimed as many as 1 million lives.

Infants in Africa, Asia and Latin America who are not breastfed for the first six months of life are 15 times more likely to die from pneumonia than those who are.

The government was aware that the country of approximately 7 million needed everyone to contribute to the rebuilding efforts, says Antoinette Uwimana, director of Women for Women International in Rwanda, which provides practical and moral support for female survivors of war. It took action by enshrining “women’s participation in the constitution and promot[ing] girls’ education,” Uwimana adds. The result? Today, 64 percent of the country’s parliamentarians are female — another world No. 1.

At the same time, the Rwandan government — in partnership with UNICEF and relying on the support of the many nongovernmental organizations that sprang up after 1994 — also sought to boost the rate of breastfeeding, using awareness-raising campaigns (the 1,000 Days Campaign included this catchy video collaboration with some of Rwanda’s biggest pop stars) and “mechanisms that protect breastfeeding rights,” Uwimana says. In policy terms, Rwanda is not only ahead of its neighbors “but also many more developed countries.” Ugandan mothers, for example, are entitled to 60 days’ paid maternity leave, but breastfeeding breaks are unpaid. And in the U.S., Uwimana notes, “there is not even guaranteed maternity leave.”

There are also cultural factors beside the economic ones, according to Uwimana, centered on the strong connection between a Rwandan woman and her baby. “They are always together in the market, and even when farming,” she says. “During our training sessions, women come with their babies.”

That’s not to say Rwanda doesn’t have more work to do. Nearly 35 percent of Rwandan women face physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, compared with 27 percent in the U.K. and 26 percent in France. And while Uwimana agrees that it’s “important to have women in parliaments and supreme courts,” she “cannot forget about the women who struggle to feed themselves due to discrimination and poverty.”

Still, the rest of the world can learn a lot from Rwanda. A 2015 McKinsey report calculated that if women played an equal role in the workforce, the global annual GDP would grow 26 percent by 2025, while studies published in the medical journal The Lancet show that infants in Africa, Asia and Latin America who are not breastfed for the first six months of life are 15 times more likely to die from pneumonia and 11 times more likely to die of diarrhea compared with those who are exclusively breastfed.

Peace Umitoni is the first to admit that holding down a full-time job while breastfeeding isn’t easy; she’s also quick to add, “But it is worth it.”

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