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A Chinese mother has been accused of exposing her "sexual organs" after breastfeeding on a train.

An image of a woman nursing her baby on a crowded Beijing subway has ignited a national debate on the acceptability of breastfeeding in public in China.

The photograph was taken by an onlooker and posted on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

It was captioned: “Let me remind you — this is a Beijing subway not a bus running in your village.”

The photograph went viral after it was reposted by a volunteer organisation (responsible for cleaning up subway flyers), which chastised the mother for exposing her “sexual organs” in public.

Many social media users leapt to her defence however, with one woman, doctor Ou Qian writing:

“It’d be ideal if she had used a nursing cover, but it’s not a big deal if she didn’t have one. Breasts are…for babies; they are not sexual organs.

“Babies need to be fed when they are hungry. She is a great mum.”

chinese woman breastfeeding on train pixelated 720x547
A pixelated version of the image that appeared on Weibo. Via http://www.thepaper.cn/

The original post has now been deleted and both the photographer and volunteer group has apologised, but not without significant furore on both sides of the debate.

In China, “confinement” of new mothers is still relatively common place —  with many women expected to remain indoors and follow a complex set of rules to care for themselves for the first 30 days following giving birth.

Combined with short maternity leave and no laws specifically allowing women to breastfeed in public spaces, a significant number of Chinese mothers are choosing to rely on formula.

According to the World Health Organisation, in 2014, fewer than 16% of Chinese mothers breastfed their children for the recommended period of six months.

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The rate is higher in rural areas (around 30%), though still below the global average (40%).

In 2008, 54,000 babies were hospitalised because of formula found to contain a chemical called melamine — a building block for cyanide.

Six infants died and 300,000 overall were affected.

This has led to many Chinese women seeking to buy baby formula from overseas markets — including  from Australia.

Arguably, it could be seen as the source of our own highly publicised “formula shortage”, that has seen some popular brands disappearing from local shelves.

formula shortage
Is it any wonder Chinese mums need to buy so much formula?

Chinese authorities have made some attempt to address low breastfeeding rates,  in April a ban on formula advertising was considered and the country has launched a breastfeeding awareness day to take place each May, but clearly the practice is still frowned upon by many.

“If I saw a pretty woman’s breasts exposed I’d stare, because I’m a man,” one Weibo user commented on the original image, receiving thousands of likes.

When attitudes like this are levelled at a mother simply trying to feed her hungry baby in public, is it any wonder Chinese women are reluctant to breastfeed?

Feature image: Chinese mothers breastfeed their babies in a subway during an event of the world breastfeeding week on August 1, 2015. Via Getty.

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