Bangladeshi mother fights childhood malnutrition through education

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Modina Begum, left, explains important concepts around child health and nutrition to a woman in her community. (World Renew Bangladesh)

It’s not just Canadian volunteers whose hard work and determination help to end hunger through Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Men and women volunteering in their own communities around the world are another key part of the work of ending hunger. Their contributions often go unsung.

One of these volunteers is Modina Begum, who lives in the remote village of Dhakhinail, Bangladesh.

Poverty rates are high in Dhakhinail. About 60 percent of the people living there cannot read or write. Only about 43 percent have any access to latrine facilities.

Modina married her husband, Abdul, when she was 17. Together, they have three children between the ages of four months and 11 years. Abdul is a farmer, but he isn’t able to produce enough crops to provide for his family’s needs, so he drives a motorbike taxi on the side for additional income.

Most of Modina’s time is spent caring for her family. She also does some tailoring to help support the family.

It’s a busy life, and no one would blame Modina if she chose to put all her energy toward simply working to get by.

But that’s not Modina’s way.

As a mother herself, the lack of knowledge about proper nutrition for mothers and babies in Dhakhinail concerned her.

When Modina learned about an opportunity to be trained as a community health volunteer through PARI, the local Bangladeshi partner of Foodgrains Bank member World Renew, she signed up.

“I had no idea about feeding nutritious foods to pregnant mothers and children under two. I never thought that I could be of any help to my community,” she says. “Now I learned these things and am helping my community people.”

In her role as a community health volunteer, Modina teaches pregnant and nursing women and mothers of young children about the importance of eating nutritious foods. She encourages them to go for pregnancy checkups, to take iron and calcium tablets, and lets them know what kind of symptoms may be dangerous.

She supports and encourages mothers to exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months, and weighs and records their weights to make sure babies are growing at a healthy pace.
When they’re not, she encourages mothers to take their babies to a health centre for treatment.

“Volunteers like Modina play an incredibly important role in spreading nutrition information in hard-to-reach communities,” says Barbara Macdonald, who directs international programs at the Foodgrains Bank.

“She understands intimately the traditional beliefs and customs surrounding childbirth and childrearing in her community, and is able to explain to her fellow mothers which beliefs are untrue, and may be harmful,” she adds.

According to World Renew Bangladesh team members, it’s common for mothers to provide sugar water for their babies alongside breastmilk, as it’s believed it makes the baby sweeter in personality, and it’s common for pregnant mothers to try not to eat too much, as they believe that will make the baby grow too big, and lead to a difficult delivery.

As well, although eggs are a relatively inexpensive protein source, local superstition is that mothers who eat them will cause their baby to have a bald head.

“Modina isn’t an outsider coming in to teach women about how to better care for their children,” says Macdonald. “She’s someone who intuitively understands what the women she’s meeting with are facing, because she’s a mother in that same community, living those same challenges herself every day.”

Modina is just one of 442 community health volunteers who have been trained by PARI and World Renew through the project. The project totals $542,000, and is benefitting 24,000 women and 21,000 children over the course of three years.

The information the volunteers are spreading is critical.

“Bangladesh is home to some of the most undernourished women and children in the world,” says Macondald, citing records from the 2016 State of the World’s Children report by UNICEF.

For example, more than a third of pre-school aged children in Bangladesh suffer from stunting.

Stunting, or being too short for one’s age, is irreversible damage that occurs when a child doesn’t get enough nutrients during key parts of their development—notably their first 1,000 days of life, from conception to 24 months.

According to the World Health Organization, “stunting before the age of 2 years predicts poorer cognitive and educational outcomes in later childhood and adolescence and has significant educational and economic consequences at the individual, household and community levels.”

That means improper brain and body development stay with a stunted child their whole life.

“It’s incredibly sad. A child who suffers from stunting doesn’t just suffer physically, from being shorter than they should,” says Macdonald. “They’re also missing out on achieving the full potential they were born with, and becoming the person they were born to be.”

That’s why the difference volunteers like Modina are making in their communities is so important. The more children are able to reach their fullest potential, the better their chances of being able to contribute to their families, their communities, and ultimately, their country.

Completely putting an end to stunting in a country like Bangladesh is a long road. Even if mothers are educated about what to feed their baby and what to eat themselves while pregnant, there is no guarantee they will be able to afford that kind of food, or manage to grow it themselves.

However, it’s a starting point.

“Even encouraging mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months can be a gamechanger for a young child,” says Macdonald. “Not only are children getting all the nutrients they need, but it also means they aren’t being exposed to health issues from unclean water, and have a lesser chance of developing infections that could lead them to being undernourished.”

There is much more work to be done. Children in Bangladesh still die from complications stemming from malnutrition every day. But volunteers like Modina are slowly bringing about change from within that is sustainable and long-lasting.

–Amanda Thorsteinsson, Communications Coordinator

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