Beyond the umbilical cord: A mother’s breastmilk is her baby’s safety blanket, a right inherent

Aug. 11, 2020

Mother’s milk is, I think, a symbol of compassion. Without mother’s milk we cannot survive, so our first act as a baby together with our mother is sucking milk from our mother, with a feeling of great closeness. At that time, we may not know how to express what love is, what compassion is, but there is a strong feeling of closeness. From the mother’s side also, if there is no strong feeling of closeness toward the baby, her milk may not flow readily. So, mother’s milk is, I think, a symbol of compassion and human affection. -The Dalai Lama

Pregnancy and motherhood are treasured experiences. From the time your baby first kicked inside your tummy to making milestones with her first cry, first smile, first latch on your breast, first syllable spoken, first step taken – such precious moments a mother would not miss to feel and witness. To ensure that her child is safe, guided and guarded by her; that her baby gets all the nutrition, the love and the care that she needs for her to conquer the world remain to be every mother’s silent prayer.

Cora Agovida and Reina Nasino are no different as mothers for their young children, who are still depending on their breastmilk for their needed nutrients. Unfortunately, they are among the hundreds of political prisoners in the Philippines who are languishing in jail for non-bailable criminal charges. Cora and Reina are hailed before the courts to answer for the crime of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Their cases were brought about by the string of searches implemented by police operatives between October and November 2019 in Negros and in Manila by virtue of search warrants issued in Quezon City.

Cora’s house was searched a few hours before sunrise. Her children, aged 10 and 1-year-old, were then sleeping beside her, still dreamy when several police operatives barged into their rented room and ordered Cora and her partner to lie down facing the floor. Allegedly, firearms and explosives were found among the clothes and toys of their children. Thus, Cora and her partner were arrested and brought to the police headquarters in Manila. At that time, Cora’s youngest child was still latching on her breast for milk and had a hard time sleeping without Cora by his side.

As for Reina, she was almost three months on her family way when she was arrested after their office in Manila, where she was staying at, was “raided” by police operatives bearing a search warrant against her colleague. Police operatives entered into their office just a little past midnight. Similar to Cora’s experience, Reina and two of her colleagues, who were also arrested after the search, were sleeping at that time when police operatives entered their rooms. Reina was ordered to lie face down for almost an hour while the search was taking place.

Reina was forced to endure the demands of her pregnancy in cramped prison cells. Her situation was further aggravated by the onset of the COVID-19 health crisis. Visitations were prohibited during the lockdown, making it doubly hard for her physical and emotional state. She and her baby were likewise deprived of the appropriate prenatal care. Thus, Reina’s baby girl was born of low birth weight. Now, after a month, Reina and her baby are set to face another struggle as her plea to be with her daughter and to ensure her child’s right to her breastmilk and optimum health, have unfortunately been denied in court.

The jail authorities which have Reina and her baby, together with Cora, in their custody claim that they have limited resources to address the needs of a breastfeeding mother and her baby. But what do the laws require insofar as the promotion and protection of the rights of breastfeeding mothers and their children are concerned?

Our 1987 Constitution values everyone’s right to health, giving priority to meeting optimum health standards for the underprivileged, women, and children, among others.[1] As part of the national policy and in recognition of the importance of breastfeeding for infants or children between 0 to 12 months of age, Republic Act No. 10028 otherwise known as the “Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009” was also enacted. The said piece of legislation expressly recognizes how essential a mother’s breastmilk is for her infant’s growth, health, and well-being. It provides that:

xxx (Breastfeeding) is the first preventive health measure that can be given to the child at birth. It also enhances the mother-infant relationship. xxx

Breastmilk is the best food since it contains essential nutrients completely suitable for the infant’s needs. It is also nature’s first immunization, enabling the infant to fight potential serious infection. It contains growth factors that enhance the maturation of an infant’s organ systems.

To concretize this policy, the law requires both public and private institutions to establish lactation stations within their premises where mothers can express their milk and appropriate facilities and equipment for its storage. Neither does the law distinguish against a nursing mother behind bars, especially so when her innocence prevails over the fabricated charges and the case has yet to be decided by the courts with finality. In fact, the breastfeeding law expressly recognizes the right of ALL MOTHERS to breastfeed their child and the concomitant right of an infant to the breastmilk of her mother.

Moreover, the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders or popularly known as the Bangkok Rules, specifically provides that breastfeeding by women prisoners of their infants shall be encouraged. The Rules further require the provision of adequate food, education, and programs that encourage breastfeeding, and appropriate environment for pregnant and nursing mothers who are imprisoned.

However, despite having these clear policies and standards set forth by both domestic and international laws, we still hear such heartbreaking stories like that of Reina and Cora. The pain of being separated from your child, all the more at this early stage of life, is unthinkable. How do we protect the best interest of the child in situations similar to these? This is both a legal and moral question that Reina and Cora, together with their lawyers from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, will engage in and hope to address in the coming days.

While Lady Justice may have her eyes blindfolded, her heart remains free to feel. May her heart feel that selfless desire to protect from harm and that unconditional love for one’s own flesh and blood, mothers like Cora and Reina feel.(

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