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The drawbacks of women’s equality

Indonesia, November 5, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Greg Briggs for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Farahdiba Tenrilemba Jafar (nicknamed Diba) is a communications officer for Healthy Start, a breastfeeding program in Jakarta. Her enthusiasm is contagious as she tells me about the program and benefits to babies when mothers breastfeed. Photo: Greg Briggs for Mercy Corps

I have always believed there are significant drawbacks to women’s equality. There is an unrelenting pressure to be perfect and to do everything: women are now expected to be amazing and attentive mothers, have multiple degrees, maintain successful careers and manage the household by cleaning and cooking. It just means more is expected in the same amount of time. I don’t think equality is about women having EQUAL rights and being treated the same as men. I think progress comes from recognizing women have DIFFERENT needs that need to be met and only by understanding those differences can true equality and empowerment come.

Diba, a communications officer for Healthy Start — Mercy Corps’ breastfeeding program in Jakarta — is one of these powerhouse women. (I am convinced women like this have more chemicals in their brain which I lack and have always envied.) She’s a single mother, works full time and is going to school for her Master's degree. Diba’s eyes light up when she talks about her job.

“I never thought I would find an NGO with a breastfeeding program!” she exclaims to me as we drive to the health clinic. I have never met someone so enthusiastic and heartfelt about their job. This is her passion, and you can see it in the way she describes the program details, talks with field staff, volunteers, midwives and mothers.

Breastfeeding — or lack their of — is a huge challenge in Jakarta. Breastfeeding has numerous health benefits and can prevent malnutrition and child mortality. Drug companies push formulas on doctors, health clinics and midwives — many mothers aren’t even aware of their basic right to breastfeed. In the hospitals after delivery, the babies are taken from their mothers and bottle fed without the mother’s permission. Baby formula is expensive and mothers often times dilute it with dirty water —the only thing available — which can cause diarrhea and illness.

Healthy Start is working with health care providers, midwives, community leaders and government workers to educate and support women and their right to breastfeed. I sat in on a mothers’ support group where women asked questions — and not just about breastfeeding.

“When can I introduce solid foods?"

"When I have leg cramps [from pregnancy] what is the least painful way to get up?"

"When will my baby’s teeth come in?”

The irony is that breastfeeding is not just a women’s issue in Jakarta. It takes the entire community to mobilize to learn about the benefits of breastfeeding and support these mothers. Many of the Healthy Start facilitators are men and most of the government leaders that Mercy Corps works with are men.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn talk about this exact issue in their book, "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." He said, just as civil rights wasn’t a black issue and the Holocaust wasn’t a Jewish issue, women’s equality isn’t just a women’s issue. I have seen this firsthand in Jakarta where men are involved in learning and encouraging their wives, sisters, daughters and friends about the importance of breastfeeding, and bringing us one step closer to equality.