Oct 2019 – Exclusive – Chat with Ines Fernandez, Breastfeeding Advocate in the Philippines

As told to Nabila Hanim, BMSG Staff

At the recent Regional Breastfeeding Conference in Malaysia, the BMSG team met Ines Fernandez, a breastfeeding advocate from the Philippines. Ines has been doing extensive work, advocating for breastfeeding, and contributed to policies to make breastfeeding a right for Filipino mothers since the 1980s. Most notably, Ines has contributed significantly to protecting the feeding of infant and young children during emergencies and continues to educate mothers and their families in rural areas on breastfeeding, infant and child nutrition. Read her inspiring story as we learn more from what she has garnered from her experiences and why it is valuable for countries like Singapore to practice similar readiness in the face of disasters.


Founding Member of the Breastfeeding Movement in the Philippines

Ines (in red) with BMSG representatives during the recent 2nd Regional Breastfeeding Conference in August 2019. [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]

I co-founded the breastfeeding movement in the Philippines in 1981. I am proud to have contributed to transforming thousands of mothers as nurturers, healers and leaders in defence of breastfeeding rights and education. In the work that I do, I have managed to facilitate the passage of three laws:

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June 2019 Newsletter: EXCO Spotlight – Khatim Hamidon

by BMSG Editorial Team

1) Tell us more about yourself! What got you started in BMSG?

Khatim and her two children. [Credits: Khatim Hamidon]

Besides being President of BMSG as an EXCO member, a peer counsellor and a trainer, I am  a mother of two, a wife, and an executive with a local charity (not BMSG). My boys are aged 9 and 3.5. 

About 10 years ago, a former colleague had told me about BMSG. She was a volunteer counsellor, and almost every conversation I had with her, she slip in some snippet about breastfeeding and natural birthing, and how these empower women. It made me rethink the idea of breastfeeding and how natural and normal it is. I then started researching about breastfeeding when I found out that I was pregnant, and started influencing my husband all about it. 

When my firstborn was a few months old, I joined a Facebook group that gives breastfeeding support to local Malay-Muslim mothers. After following the posts for some months, I found out that I could start providing suggestions to other  breastfeeding mothers needing support too! The administrators then encouraged me to attend the BMSG volunteer counsellor training and I jumped at that chance to be able to provide better advice and support.


2) You are also one out of a few of our longest serving volunteers. How has the organisation evolved?

Khatim (2nd from left, top row) with her fellow BMSG volunteers at the launch of the KKH Milk Bank in 2017. [Credits: Khatim Hamidon]

I joined the BMSG in 2011 – and goodness knows the amount of change has occurred. The most impressive change, in my opinion, is our widening pool of dedicated and trained volunteer counsellors. Years ago,  it was a struggle to maintain volunteers for our services, such as manning the hotline and facilitating our breastfeeding workshops.

Now, we have over forty active volunteer counsellors who are rostered for our counselling hotline, email account and facilitating our workshops. They are also the ones who fill the ranks for our Facebook groups, WhatsApp line, mother meet-ups, and various talks and events.

 I am so humbled that we have managed to attract mothers to volunteer to spend their free time and attend the counselling training sessions, and then continue to help empower other mothers!  It is very satisfying to know that over the years, BMSG will continue to play a part in increasing local awareness and understanding on why breastfeeding matters.


3) Now that you are President, what are some of the things you wish to work on during your term?

Khatim (top right in pink hijab) with the BMSG team during the talk by renowned breastfeeding advocate Maureen Minchin (bottom row, 2nd from left) in 2018.

The previous EXCOs have done amazingly well at growing the organisation to what it is now. I consider myself lucky to be helming BMSG at this period where awareness on breastfeeding is much higher than what it was less than ten years ago. 

During my term, I aim to improve our volunteer management and welfare, so that my team of volunteers will continue to give awesome breastfeeding support to mothers and families.

 I want BMSG to reach out to the younger generation of students to tell them why breastfeeding is important and that it is what mammals do to feed their young. Such that as they mature and become adults, breastfeeding then becomes their new normal. 

I would also like to work on getting stronger support from the community as a whole. We are a small charity run by volunteers, providing breastfeeding support across Singapore. We are as lean as can be, but to grow further for more accessibility we need regular contributions from our supporters. 


4) You also represent the BMSG at SIFECS and IBFAN. Could you tell us a bit more about these advocacy efforts that you are part of as BMSG’s representative?

Khatim (seated, 2nd row, first from left) at the IBFAN regional meet in Jakarta, 2018. [Credits: Khatim Hamidon]

SIFECS stands for the Sale of Infant Foods Ethics Committee Singapore. It is an ethical code that guides the sales and marketing of infant foods in Singapore in order to protect and promote breastfeeding. SIFECS can simply be said to be the Singaporean version of the World Health Organisation International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes.

 The code is targeted at formula and baby food companies, healthcare institutions and businesses so that they comply with the rules. With the new update of the SIFEC codes, including expanding its scope from infants 0-6 months to 0-12 months, increased restrictions on sponsorships received by healthcare institutions among other developments, I am proud of the efforts of the SIFECS committee who has worked very hard on the revisions. A strict code will help consumers make better decisions on what is best due to higher ethical marketing standards. This is important, as predatory marketing – when the information received by consumers are inaccurate and/or misleading – moots informed consent. 

 It is important to note that the SIFECS website encourages the public to also be part of the effort in spotting any breaches of the code. Anyone can send feedback to the Health Promotion Board (HPB) for action here.

BMSG would also continue to educate and empower parents to become informed consumers, when making decisions on infant and toddler feeding. My goal is that the near future, the SIFECS code will be further expanded to include follow-on formula milk and baby food for babies beyond the age of 12 months old, just as the WHO Code does.  

IBFAN, on the other hand, or the International Baby Foods Action Network, is a network of public interest groups across the world whose goal is to protect, promote and support breastfeeding and optimal infant feeding practices. BMSG is proud to be an affiliate of IBFAN Southeast Asia.

In the recent years, BMSG representatives have attended its workshops and I have been blessed to have participated in its meetings in Hong Kong and Jakarta (I wrote about my experiences here.) It has honed my views to be more critical on what breastfeeding protection and promotion are truly about: it is definitely more than just a mother’s choice. The knowledge that breastmilk can sustain a baby to survive and thrive, without the need for baby formula and foods up till toddlerhood, is one that empowers women and families not to rely on expensive and imported foods to raise healthy children.

We shared experiences and information with fellow delegates from the Asian nations, and I am amazed by their level of ingenuity to make breastfeeding work. They made breastfeeding supported by all stakeholders in a society: families, communities, health institutions and even their governments. Everyone played a role, because they understand that breastfeeding is a public health concern, not just for the dyad. I look forward to learning more from fellow breastfeeding advocates from around the region and beyond. 


5) What would be your goal for breastfeeding in Singapore?

Khatim (left) with President Halimah Yaacob and Elaine Chow, BMSG’s immediate past President, at an Istana event in 2018 when Khatim was then BMSG’s Vice-President. [Credits: Elaine Chow]

 BMSG exists because breastfeeding is still not seen as something normal. In generations past, breastfeeding support was innate within a community; mothers breastfed their babies, because that is what their mothers did. The confinement period ensured that both the mother and baby dyad are well taken care of. If a mother could not breastfeed her baby, cross-nursing and/or wet-nursing were accepted as an good alternative.

Unfortunately, today many new mothers are unable to access postpartum help or even get help from their families.  My goal is for breastfeeding to be NORMAL and to be expected in Singapore, and that it is understood as a public health concern.

We have seen progress, with the swelling number of membership in our breastfeeding support group on Facebook (over 16,000 online members now), with more hospitals certified as BFHI, and with the proliferation of breastfeeding paraphernalia in baby shops.

We can still do more. We should expect more. We would wait for a governmental action but we mothers could still affect change on the ground– every action works to permeate into the community (just like how I was convinced with my colleague!).

So we ask you to nurse your baby (or your toddler) anyway and everywhere.  Do not be intimidated if you need to ask your doctor for breastfeeding-friendly medication from your doctor. Stand firm to what you believe in and that you are doing the best that you can for your baby and yourself. 


6) Any last words?

Khatim (top row, first from left) at a Lactation Massage workshop by Filipino breastfeeding advocate Inez Fernandez (seated, first from right) in 2019. [Credits: Khatim Hamidon]

I am thankful for the confidence shown to me to lead this organisation. We have a great team for this term and we will achieve our goals during these two years.

 I am thankful for the mothers and their families for trusting us and believing that we are respected as a source for breastfeeding support.

 I am also thankful for the past contributions of former BMSG activists. We will pass on this legacy to future teams!

 Last but not least, I am thankful for the understanding from my family – BMSG work is extra work and sometimes it keeps me away from my loved ones. But I believe the little that I do will benefit the future generations to live in an environment where breastfeeding is seen and appreciated as part of life.