Lindiwe Sayi, 32, has weaned her baby when she was just three months old as the mother has to focus on her work as a vendor to earn a livelihood in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.
Her husband, 37-year-old Langton Muyeni, left the country last December, heading to neighboring South Africa in search of greener pastures and has never been in touch with his wife since then.
Seized with the role of having to fend for her three children, including the infant, the single mom now has to work even harder.
In Zimbabwe, Sayi is just one of many women, who, hard-pressed to the core by the country’s mounting economic hardships, are forgoing exclusive breastfeeding.
The globe has been marking the World Breastfeeding Week, a global campaign to raise awareness and galvanize action on breastfeeding, since 1992 annually between Aug. 1-7, with themes of healthcare systems, women and work.
Twenty-six years after it was marked first, a World Health Assembly resolution endorsed the World Breastfeeding Week as an important breastfeeding promotion strategy.
Unfortunately, it has not received any recognition by Zimbabwean mothers who have prematurely weaned their babies off breast milk to attend to their families’ bread and butter issues.
“I have to live. My children need school fees and food, and if I had allowed myself to stay and focus on breastfeeding my last-born child, the life would have been worse for us as a family today,” Sayi told Anadolu Agency.
Early weaning affects babies’ health negatively
Breastfeeding is a thing of past for many women in Zimbabwe, including Tracy Maunganidze, a mother of a four-month-old baby, who is working as a till operator in a grocery store in Harare.
Maunganidze said she has found it difficult to stick to the six months of exclusive breastfeeding, as she rather has to work to support her dependents, including her infant baby.
“If single mothers like myself spent time for breastfeeding, poverty would harm us more and we might starve as well together with our children, meaning nobody would be out there looking for food for us,” she told Anadolu Agency.
For Maunganidze, staying at home to focus on breastfeeding her baby, with nobody fending for the family, would mean malnutrition would pound all of them.
Many other Zimbabwean women with infants have had to wean their babies early and start feeding them with solid foods instead.
Yet this has impacted a large number of babies’ health negatively, according to health experts.
“Babies weaned before they could be breastfed exclusively for the six months have very weak immune systems,” Arnold Rukoko, a pediatrician in Harare, told Anadolu Agency.
Parents cannot afford formula
Marylin Chiza, a 31-year-old mother, retired from breastfeeding her now five-month-old baby boy two months ago.
She, together with her husband, Nevson Chiza, 35, is employed at a local hotel in Harare. The mother, however, said they still cannot afford formula, the processed baby milk which costs $7 per 400 grams (14 ounces).
Marylin Chiza and her husband earn 25,000 Zimbabwean dollars ($31) each per month. From the combined wage of $62.50, they have to deduct their rentals for the two rooms they live in before they even start talking about monthly groceries.
Faced with these challenges, many Zimbabwean mothers have had to opt out of breastfeeding and concentrate on working to help their husbands to eke out a living, meaning the weaned babies have to depend on solid foods much earlier.
“The food we eat is the same we give to our baby because I can’t quit my job since I have to make sure, together with my husband, that we work to earn that little in order to survive. If I stay home to breastfeed our child, we will fail to pay our bills,” Marylin Chiza told Anadolu Agency.
Only 14% of Zimbabwean mothers breastfeed babies up to 2 years: UN
According to UNICEF, only about 14% of Zimbabwean mothers breastfeed their babies up to the recommended two years, with the majority of them rushing to wean their babies below the stipulated cutoff point.
Last year, UNICEF and the World Health Organization, while marking the World Breastfeeding Week, blamed the coronavirus for derailing of the progress made in urging mothers to practice exclusive breastfeeding.
“While there has been progress in breastfeeding rates in the last four decades – with a 50% increase in the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding globally – the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the fragility of those gains. In many countries, the pandemic has caused significant disruptions in breastfeeding support services, while increasing the risk of food insecurity and malnutrition,” UNICEF and the WHO said jointly.
As scores of Zimbabwean mothers quit breastfeeding due to economic hardships, UNICEF said mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer, which have become the leading causes of death among women over the years.
According to UNICEF, with less women breastfeeding their babies, Zimbabwe has an infant mortality rate of 50 deaths per 1,000 births.
Yet patriarchy has been blamed for the departure from exclusive breastfeeding.
“Mothers here are only comfortable with exclusively breastfeeding often for the first three months of their child’s life and this is due to the fact that there is pressure from in-laws to include different foods in their babies’ diets which emanates from often uninformed traditions, which the mothers find hard to resist,” said a head nurse at a private clinic in Harare, refusing to be named as she was unauthorized to speak to the media.