Twitter image of Sophie Gregoire Trudeau nursing son Hadrian

When a tweet is more than just a tweet

World Breastfeeding Week 2016 (August 1 – 7) wrapped up with Canada demonstrating leadership on this important public health issue in a significant – if novel – way. The Prime Minister’s twitter account published an intimate photo of Sophie Grégoire Trudeau breastfeeding the couple’s youngest son, Hadrian. The photo was captioned with Ms. Trudeau’s words and initials, “This World Breastfeeding Week, let’s support mothers to breastfeed anytime, anywhere. – SGT”

The importance of breastfeeding – to the health of both mothers and babies – is well documented. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Health Canada encourage exclusive breastfeeding for infants up to 6 months of age. And yet, the right to breastfeed—anytime or anywhere—is not spelled out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Only two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, list the specific rights of breastfeeding mothers in their Human Rights Codes. Given such low-level legal and systemic support for the practice, it is not surprising, then, that Canadian culture has some distance to go before breastfeeding becomes the norm. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011/12 (the most recent years for which data on the subject exists) only 26 percent of mothers breastfed exclusively for six months (or more).

“Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large,” notes the WHO web site.

Given that reality – and the paltry level of breastfeeding adoption by Canadian mothers – the significance of the Trudeaus’ gesture cannot be underestimated.

Societal leaders have the ability to be societal game changers, to bring about cultural transformation. It’s a truth Save the Mothers is built on, one we’ve seen play out throughout East Africa, where we’ve been established for over a decade. Save the Mothers is a unique Canadian-Ugandan partnership, working in East Africa to raise up game changers; indigenous Africans with the passion to learn what it takes to safeguard the lives of women and children in their own communities.

Throughout the developing world, women know the game desperately needs changing. While the vast majority of infants in East Africa are exclusively breastfed for the first six months, other numbers tell a different, tragic story. An estimated 303,000 women and millions of babies die annually due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths occur in the developing world. More than half of them come from sub-Saharan Africa. Most troubling, virtually all of these deaths are preventable.

Through a two-year Master of Public Health Leadership degree program, Save the Mothers has trained more than 400 East African leaders, many of whom have gone on to become agents of cultural transformation. They include people like: Beatrice Barikurungi Rwakimari, a Ugandan MP who once refused to allow her government to borrow any more money unless it approved loans to equip and advance maternal health centres; Ivan Godfrey Tibankana, a municipal politician whose lobbying of a large, international energy company (which he could have used to obtain a new office or vehicle for himself) resulted in the construction of a new maternity hospital for his impoverished district; Apollo Namanya, deputy commander of operations for the Uganda Police Force’s Counterterrorism Unit who uses his influence to counsel the 650 men and women under him regarding safe sex practices and family planning; and Denis Olak who has counselled, educated and supported hundreds of girls who lost their childhoods and innocence when forced into sex slavery by the Lord’s Resistance Army (a ruthless tribal uprising that kidnapped tens of thousands of Ugandan children.)

Equipped by Save the Mothers and empowered by passion, such game changers are proving that it’s possible to shift ways of thinking, and to develop strategies that will radically transform outcomes.

Justin Trudeau’s tweet showing his wife and son doing what has come naturally to mothers and babies since time began was so much more than just a tweet. To a culture – ours – which has a long way to go to fully embrace a practice that’s considered best for mothers and babies, it was a stamp of approval from a powerhouse couple; a stamp that has the potential to influence attitudes and bring about positive change.

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