With 250 million people, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. It is also one of the most disaster-prone. Currently the authorities are coping with the aftermath of the tsunami on the Mentawai islands, which killed 431 people and the situation around Mount Merapi. The volcano has erupted three times in the past week and almost 70,000 people have been evacuated from the region.
But addressing these natural disasters has not stopped the government from continuing with its legislative agenda to improve the lives of Indonesians across its territories. In 2007, a government survey found that nearly 40% of children under five were stunted due to malnutrition. On average, a million babies are born every year in Indonesia and the government wants to ensure the health of each new generation is improved.
Research has shown that when mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, this helps ward off infections as well as providing babies with the exact nutrition they need. In poor countries, where water supplies can be dirty and contaminated, breastfeeding also ensures that babies are not exposed to water-borne diseases. The Indonesian government has therefore passed a law which stipulates that all babies should be breastfed exclusively for six months. A fine of up to 100 million rupiah (11,000 dollars) can be imposed next year on any person or organisation which stops a mother from doing this.
Traditionally, most Indonesian women have breastfed their children. But with more women working, many no longer do so exclusively. Recent data shows that breastfeeding rates in Indonesia have declined by 10 per cent between 2006 and 2008. By law, women are entitled to three months’ paid maternity leave, but many feel the pressure to return to work after that. One young mother, Diana, who works in the garment industry, switched to formula milk so she could return to the factory. But because her son became ill, she went back to breastfeeding and delayed her return. Diana said her place of work has no facilities for employees who need to breastfeed.
The new law requires companies to provide such facilities, so that nursing mothers can breastfeed or pump and store their milk during the day. According to the Ministry of Health, the new law will also bring tighter regulations over companies supplying formula milk. Producers will not be allowed to offer any incentives which encourage mothers to switch to their milk products in the first six months. (There is an International Code of Marketing for Breast Milk Substitutes, but this has yet to be adopted in many developing countries). At this stage, it is unclear how the new law will be policed, but with malnutrition affecting millions of Indonesia’s children, it is being welcomed as a step in the right direction for improving the health of the youngest.