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Pakistan’s First Human Milk Bank Shuts Down

A nurse examines bottles of breast milk donated by nursing mothers at the human milk bank at the San Juan de Dios hospital in Guatemala City, Guatemala, August 1, 201 via TJP

Pakistan’s first human milk bank has temporarily suspended operations on Saturday following severe criticism from religious circles.

After religious scholars declared the initiative haram or forbidden under Islamic law, the Health Ministry paused the operation to seek further guidance from the Islamic Ideology Council, a governmental body in Pakistan.

According to Jerusalem Post, the human milk bank was opened earlier this month at the Sindh Institute of Child Health and Neonatology (SICHN) in Karachi. Developed in partnership with UNICEF and the Pakistan Pediatric Association, the facility provides donor milk to infants who cannot receive sufficient breast milk from their mothers.

The initiative represents a major step forward in promoting infant health and nutrition in the South Asian Muslim-majority country, which is now threatened by the religious opposition.

“We have established a dedicated facility to collect, pasteurize, store, and distribute human breast milk donated by lactating mothers,” Dr. Jamal Raza, the executive director of SICHN, told The Media Line. He noted that the initiative is especially crucial for sick or premature babies, who may not be able to breastfeed.

1719307082517Graded and labelled plastic bottles filled with mothers milk to different levels. The bottles lie in a freezer at a human milk bank, where human milk is collected, screened, treated and dispensed. This milk is frozen to be stored for many months until it is needed. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) via TJP. 

A heated debate broke out on social media after the launch of the human milk bank. While supporters emphasize the bank’s importance for infant health, opponents say it goes against Islamic law regarding breastfeeding.

Human milk banks challenges in Muslim countries. 

In Islam, a woman who breastfeeds a child not biologically related to her develops ties of “milk kinship,” or rada’ah, with that child.

“This relationship is akin to blood ties, which forbids marriage between breastfed siblings within Islamic legal frameworks,” Mufti Syed Qaiser Hussain Tirmizi, a prominent Rawalpindi-based Islamic scholar, told The Media Line.

While milk banks have been around in the West since the early 20th century, the concept of rada’ah has impeded the adoption of milk banks in the Muslim world. A newly opened human milk bank in Bangladesh was shut down in 2019 after similar protests from religious circles.

The concept of milk-kinship “is not widely understood or acknowledged in Western cultures, where such familial ties through nursing do not typically influence marital relations or legal considerations,” Muhammed Shahid Masood Qazi, a Birmingham, UK-based human rights lawyer, told The Media Line. “Thus, the debate over the establishment of milk banks reflects a cultural and legal divergence between Islamic and Western perspectives on familial relations and marriage.”

Iran is one of the only Muslim countries with an active human milk bank. The bank was established in 2016 at the Al-Zahraa Teaching Hospital in the northwest of the country.

Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani, a Karachi-based retired Federal Shariat Court judge and leading Islamic scholar, issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, declaring the establishment of the human milk bank illegal.

SICHN’s spokesperson said in a statement on Saturday that the fatwa was what prompted the institute to pause the human milk bank’s operations.

“Only milk from Muslim women would be provided to Muslim children, and the service would be free of charge to avoid any commercial implications. Families should also be told about the kinship concept,” the statement clarified.

A senior official at the Health Ministry who asked to remain anonymous told The Media Line, “In response to religious criticism, UNICEF has urged the authorities to clarify misconceptions surrounding the initiative. This is crucial for the swift resumption of this vital project.”

The Health Ministry agreed to consult with the Council of Islamic Ideology, the constitutional body in Pakistan responsible for providing legal advice on Islamic matters. In a 2014 ruling, the Council of Islamic Ideology ruled against the legitimacy of a human milk bank.

“We believe a thorough discussion involving nutritionists, pediatricians, and other relevant experts is essential on this sensitive topic,” Mufti Ghulam Majid, a research scholar at the Council of Islamic Ideology, told The Media Line. “It will be crucial to engage Pakistan’s prominent religious scholars to listen to and comprehend each other’s perspectives and arguments thoroughly.”

Tirmizi, the Rawalpindi-based scholar, said that a human milk bank could adhere to Islamic law as long as it keeps comprehensive records of its donors and recipients.

“This approach safeguards against any potential violations of Islamic law regarding familial and marital relations based on breastfeeding connections,” he explained. – TJP

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