Armenia’s new law promotes breastfeeding and aims to improve life from the very beginning

As natural as anything else on earth, a mother’s milk  is the best food for every infant and baby; it provides complete nourishment which benefits the health and development of children. Around the world and in Armenia in particular, this superb food is regularly challenged by the baby food industry, which often aggressively promotes infant formula as an appropriate replacement to breast milk. A new law was recently approved by Armenia’s Parliament, ensuring comprehensive legal protection for breastfeeding as well as regulating the marketing practices of infant formulas and other baby foods in the country.

The dramatic decline in the practice of breastfeeding in Armenia coincides with the devastating 1989 Spitak earthquake, when many humanitarian aid organizations provided large amounts of infant formula to families living in severe economic and social circumstances.  Recent studies indicate that the number of babies who were fed breast milk dropped by approximately 20 per cent in the years following the earthquake

Ongoing marketing efforts by baby food producing companies only made the situation worse in the years following the earthquake. The situation has improved little over the past decades as there was no legal document to ban the promotion of infant formula and no efforts to encourage breastfeeding.

After more than two decades, Armenia continues to face very low numbers of babies who receive breast milk. Only 36 per cent of children are being breastfed within one hour of their birth and only 35 per cent are exclusively fed breast milk, as recommended, for the first six months of their lives.

Lack of knowledge about the advantages of breastfeeding and dangers of incorrect behaviour, especially in rural places and in women with low levels of educational attainment, has been widely observed in Armenia. This is compounded by a lack of baby-friendly hospitals and polyclinics in Armenia.

Manushak Grigoryan, a mother of two, from the Stepanavan Region of Armenia brought up her two babies differently as her knowledge on child nutrition and care has changed drastically over the past five years. “I used to think that cow’s milk is quite an appropriate food for my baby,” she says. “Breastfeeding was complicated with my first baby, so I easily replaced [breast milk] with formula and then with cow’s milk,” she explains.

Armenia joined the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes initiated by World Health Organization in 1981, but the law was not adopted or developed until 2005. This document remained in the Parliament for more than five years before it was considered by the Parliamentarians due to the lack of understanding and minimal endorsement by the Civic Society.

Through its global Child Health Now campaign, World Vision is addressing the issue of infant mortality around the world through the promotion of a cohesive approach to improve child and maternal well-being. World Vision’s estimates suggest that a comprehensive programme of family and community care, including improved nutrition, hand washing, breast feeding and early identification of pneumonia, could save the lives of as many as 2.5 million children annually – more than half of the total needed to reach Millennium Development Goal #5.

When World Vision Armenia, together with other international agencies and local organization formed the Armenia’s Mother and Child Health Advocacy Alliance, one of the first initiatives undertaken by the Alliance was the refreshment of the law and its placement into the public’s attention.

Through active dialogue and cooperation with the Ministry of Health of Armenia, the Standing Committee on Health Care, Maternity and Childhood, a big advocacy campaign was launched to promote the adoption of the law by the Parliament.

Finally, on November 20th, 2014, Armenia’s Parliament approved the Law with all Parliamentarians voting for it. “The adoption of the law is just a first step,” says Naira Gharakhanyan, Manager for World Vision’s Child Health Now campaign in Armenia.  “Even in countrie where the Code is adopted, its effects will be limited if related measures, including sub legislative acts and regulations are not existent. We have a plenty work and further advocacy and lobbying activities ahead,” she added.

In addition to its lobbying efforts, World Vision has been educating families in the 256 communities where it is operating about the importance and value of breastfeeding.  “When I participated in classes organized by World Vision, learned that I should breastfeed my baby exclusively for six months and then give her age-appropriate supplementary food,” says Manushak Grigoryan. “I wished I had had this knowledge earlier [with my first child], and I wish our paediatrician and the policlinics had not told me to give formula to my child,” continuous Manushak, who is now breastfeeding her 1 and a half year old baby.