Religious leaders join the campaign for breastfeeding Palestinian children

© UNICEF-oPt/2013/ Izhiman

By Monica Awad

Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territory, 16 July 2012 - Sounds of humming and whispering filled the air of the big hall where more than one hundred women had gathered. All were religious educators, discussing an issue they were not used to study: exclusive breastfeeding.

Forty five year-old Alia, who wore a long jilbab, a coat-like dress, and a veil, said she welcomed the opportunity to learn more on breastfeeding as she was expecting her first grandchild. “I want to learn more not only to educate mothers in my community, but also to educate my own daughter in-law, Sabreen, who will give birth to her first child any minute”, she said.

Organized by UNICEF and the Palestinian ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs, with support from the Government of Japan, the workshop aimed at informing religious educators on the importance of breastfeeding during the first six months of a baby’s life, including during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The workshop was the first of a series of initiatives organized in link with World Breastfeeding Week, in cooperation with the Minitry of Health and the National Breastfeeding Committee.

After realizing that some Muslim mothers were not aware that breastfeeding women are licensed to break the fast, UNICEF and partners decided to discuss the issue with religious leaders who, in turn, will raise awareness among their communities.

© UNICEF-oPt/2013/ Izhiman

Sheikh Khamis Abda, Assistant Deputy Ministry of the Waqf and of Religious Affairs, addressed the participants to remind them of the exemption, adding that the Quran called for breastfeeding babies for two years.

“Mothers of children who are less than six months old should exclusively breastfeed their infants, including during Ramadan”, he said. “Islam clearly states that breastfeeding women are exempt from fasting. They can make up the days missed later on.”

Ensuring that women exclusively breastfeed their infants is a task for all. ” Everyone needs to be educated on the importance on breastfeeding: mothers, fathers, mother-in-laws and the community as a whole,” said UNICEF Chief of Health and Nutrition Kamel Ben Abdallah. “Today we reach out at religious educators, because they will help us reinforce the message. Our ultimate goal is to ensure the best start in life to children.”

The discussions on breastfeeding attracted wide interest among religious educators, many of whom kept asking questions both on religious and health issues. It also offered them a rare opportunity to meet with other religious educators from the north to the south of the West Bank, all gathered together in one room.

“Due to the access restrictions and checkpoints, it is usually difficult to organize meetings in one place for all of us. Today is a great opportunity to exchange ideas and lessons learnt with educators that I’d not usually meet,” said 42-year-old Buthaina, who had come all the way from Balata Refugee Camp. “This will help us become strong agents of change in our society,” she added.



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