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Somalia, 28 December 2010: Community mobilizers help to fight childhood malnutrition

© UNICEF Somalia/2010/Pflanz
Khadara Ahmed Nur holds her baby girl, Amran Yusuf, outside her rag-and-thatch home in Hargeisa, Somalia.

By Mike Pflanz

HARGEISA, Somalia, 28 December 2010 – Halima Awali, 60, shushes the crowd of boisterous children gathered around her and proclaims, “I was there to bring almost all of these babies into the world.” Squinting into the fierce noon Somaliland sun, the smiling grandmother adds, “Now I am here to make sure all of them stay here.”

For most of her adult life Ms. Awali has been a village midwife, helping the community’s poorest residents through childbirth in places too remote for them to access professional obstetric care.

Door-to-door visits

Ms. Awali is one of an army of UNICEF-trained community mobilizers carrying out daily door-to-door visits and advising mothers how to keep their families healthy.

The community mobilizers’ programme aims to ensure that children who are identified as malnourished are treated before they need to go to hospital. It is supported by UNICEF, with funding from the European Commission humanitarian aid department, the UK Department for International Development, the Governments of Italy, Spain and Denmark, and the Italian and French National Committees for UNICEF – as well as the Somalia Common Humanitarian Fund.

There is widespread lack of knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding, better diets, hygienic handling of food and generally making a child’s environment as sanitary as possible, according to Ms. Awali’s colleague, Fatuma Gayid.

“These things were not so much of a problem for our mothers when we were children,” says Ms. Gayid, 52, who was a traditional birth attendant for many years.

© UNICEF Somalia/2010/Pflanz
Halima Awali, a UNICEF- trained social worker, measures a child's mid upper arm circumference during door-to-door visits in Hargeisa, to check on the health of the neighbourhood’s children.

Breastfeeding essential

As they conduct their tours through their neighbourhoods, the community mobilizers also give mothers advice on how to avoid health risks to their children. Chief among those suggestions is for them to breastfeed their babies from birth to six months.

“It’s a social problem,” explains Kaltun Hussein, National Health Officer for the Somali Red Crescent Society, which works with UNICEF across Somaliland. “A problem of lack of education, a problem of women thinking that the bottle is civilized and the breast is barbaric. It means babies are exposed to germs from far too young an age.”

For Khadara Ahmed Nur, the recommendation to breastfeed her first child came too late.

“He died when he was six months old,” she says during a visit by Ms. Gayid to check on her two other children.

Mobilizers provide support

As Ms. Awali and Ms. Gayid continue their rounds one recent afternoon, they are greeted by dozens of mothers who, before, had nowhere to turn for free advice on how to keep their children well.

“At first, when she came here offering help, I was not friendly. I thought that I needed no help,” says Tagiallah Mohammed, a mother with 10 children living in Sheikh Nur, on the outskirts of Hargeisa. As she speaks, she holds her three-year-old daughter Hodan while Ms. Awali expertly measured the circumference of her upper arm – a quick way of checking any child’s state of malnutrition. On this occasion, all is well.

“Now we are close friends,” Ms. Mohammed adds. “Three times, Hodan has fallen sick, and these ladies have stopped it from becoming much worse. Without them, maybe she would not be with me still today.”

 

 
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