The practice, said to be a common occurrence in Uganda, have remained relatively quiet until Sarah Opendi, the country’s minister of state for health, raised the alarm while speaking at parliament.
“Men are part of the problem during breastfeeding. A mother is breastfeeding, you also want something on the other side, saying that it can cure HIV/AIDS, cancer, male dysfunction. It is a myth,” New Vision quoted her to have said this while addressing the house in August 2018.
While addressing the lawmakers during plenary, Opendi had warned “a growing culture of men demanding to suckle, which was becoming a problem for some breastfeeding mothers and their babies”.
The concerns trailing the practice informed a recent study by Kyambogo University in Kampala and Britain’s University of Kent, supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund.
According to The Guardian UK, findings from the study conducted in the rural Buikwe district — where it is believed to be rampant — showed the practice is now linked to gender violence and coercive behaviour.
Rowena Merritt, a British behavioural scientist who specialises in public health and a lead researcher on the project, noted that the fact many people still remain silent about the practice shows its not socially accepted.
“It was very much an exploratory mission. We didn’t know if we would find anybody willing to talk to us who admitted to doing it. We didn’t even really know if it was real or not,” he said.
“One said: ‘I know other men do it, but we’ve never talked about it.’ So that to me would suggest that it is a common behaviour, but it isn’t socially accepted.”
Merritt explained that preliminary findings from the study showed most of the women are being coerced by their husbands to breastfeed them.
“It appears to be a hugely coerced behaviour from the people we spoke to,” he said.
Peter Rukundo, a senior lecturer at Kyambogo University who assisted with the research, attributed the practice to widespread belief in some communities that breast milk from their wives has some medicinal benefits.
“There is a belief in some communities that breast milk has energising and curative powers, even curing diseases such as HIV and Aids and cancer,” he said.
“There is a gap in public awareness of the risks in such practices. But the challenge is we don’t have the evidence of the magnitude of this behaviour. We need a survey on prevalence.”
Thomas, one of such men, was quoted as telling the researchers that he feels energised after sucking his wife’s breast, adding non-compliance from her could result into violence.
“It sustains me, I come home for lunch and it relieves stress in the middle of the working day,” he said.
“She can’t say no because you become obsessed, it’s hard to stop. If women say no it can cause violence, it’s a big issue.”
The study also found women are increasingly becoming helpless in resisting the practice, with fear such could cost them their husband.
“I fear that my husband might go elsewhere if I wouldn’t let it happen,” one of the women was quoted as saying.
Health professionals, including midwives and nutritionists, who interacted with the researchers, also called for the ban on the practice, warning that newly born babies risk contacting infections from breasts from the man’s saliva.
“The fear for me, is the longer that this continues it will become part of the culture and tradition for the next generation. I see parallels with FGM,” Merritt said.
It is believed that the development has been linked to gender-based violence in the Karamoja region in north-east Uganda.