In January, the Federal National Council (FNC) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) passed a draft of a new mandatory breastfeeding law that is likely to become part of a more comprehensive law aimed at protecting the rights of children in the federation. The bill has been met with controversy and women’s rights groups are some of its most outspoken critics.

Now that it has passed in the FNC, the breastfeeding clause will become part of a larger Child Rights Law, the details of which are currently under debate.

Members of the FNC who voted for the breastfeeding mandate describe nursing one’s child as a “duty” that every infant is entitled to. They cite well-documented benefits of breastfeeding, particularly improved health for the child and stronger mother-child bond, to strengthen their argument.

Some even claim the Quran itself includes a dictate for breastfeeding while others hail the legislation as a means of strengthening the rights of working mothers.

Sultan Al Sammahi, a member of the FNC, says, “This is the right of every child for two years.” According to Al Sammahi, when mothers cannot nurse their own babies, wet nurses will be provided although the mandate does not include clearly defined reasons why a mother would be legally exempt from the law.

Critics, including Mariam Al Roumi, fear the law creates an opportunity for men to sue their wives if they cannot or will not breastfeed willingly. Al Roumi is Minister of Social Affairs for the UAE.

Others express concern over the wet-nurse clause. Unanswered questions include who these wet nurses will be, are they from UAE families, who pays for them and how much, and will a prescription for formula be available for babies who simply cannot digest milk in any form. Others fear baby formula will become completely unavailable in the UAE, making it an illegal black-market commodity even when it’s the only food a baby can tolerate.

The women’s support group Out of the Blues lauds the aim of the bill but expresses concern that mothers who cannot breastfeed for any number of reasons are already being stigmatized and this bill will add undue emotional and legal trauma to their burden. Out of the Blues is a support organization for women suffering from a postnatal illness (PNI) and is based in Dubai, one of the UAE states.

Marie-Claire Bakker describes breastfeeding as a personal experience that produces a “relationship and bond (that) cannot be legislated.” She says women need informed support at this vulnerable time, not threats or criminalization. Bakker is a spokesperson for the La Leche League, an international breastfeeding advocacy group based in the United States.

Source: “Bill would make breastfeeding mandatory in the Emirates.” Haaretz. Haaretz Daily Newspaper Ltd. Jan 28, 2014. Web. Feb 6, 2014.