Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday told health workers and NGOs they were wasting their money on campaigns to promote breastfeeding in rural areas because 99 percent of mothers in those areas already breastfeed.
Addressing thousands of students, NGO workers and government officials on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich at an event to mark International Children’s Day, Mr. Hun Sen said the real areas of concern are in urban centers, where families have enough income to purchase substitutes such as milk formula.
“Why are there breastfeeding campaigns in rural areas? Can people in rural areas afford to buy milk for their children?” Mr. Hun Sen asked the crowd, before answering: “Actually, they do not have enough money to afford it—even the campaigners themselves can’t afford it.”
Mr. Hun Sen continued that organizations working in health do not fully understand the situation on the ground in Cambodia.
“Our donor partners do not understand the geographical situation well. Ninety-nine percent of people in rural areas already breastfeed. What they need is money to feed themselves so they can make enough breast milk,” he said.
While health workers on Sunday agreed that breastfeeding in rural areas was the norm, they also said breastfeeding campaigns remain essential when educating mothers on how to feed their child properly.
“The campaigns are not just about promoting initial and exclusive breastfeeding,” said Sin Somuny, executive director of Medicam, an umbrella organization for NGOs working in the health sector.
“For example, Cambodians traditionally believe that colostrum [the mother’s very first milk, produced during late pregnancy] is bad for the baby, so they throw it away. But in fact, the baby needs to be put to breast in the first 24 hours, as this milk contains important antibodies that protect the newborn against disease,” he added.
What is more, many mothers do not breastfeed exclusively, he said, and supplement feeding with water or coconut milk, which can diminish vital nutrients and increase the risk of introducing infection.
Unicef, the World Health Organization and dozens of NGOs working in the health sector have for years run programs promoting the benefits of breastfeeding to counteract debilitating nutritional deficiencies such as stunting among Cambodian children.
According to Unicef, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding rose from 11 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2010. Still, according to the University Research Corporation, a U.S.-based health organization, there is an ongoing need for educational campaigns on matters such as breastfeeding due to the fact 28 percent of Cambodian children under 5 are underweight and 40 percent are short for their age, a sign of malnutrition.