Cambodia

Mother Support Group Network promotes exclusive breastfeeding in Cambodia

KA HANG, Cambodia, 31 March 2008 – The air is humid and the bright green rice fields of Ka Hang rustle gently, poised for another monsoon rain shower. A dozen or so mothers, with babies in their arms and toddlers running circles at their feet, make their way towards a canopied shelter.

The women are attending a group discussion organized by members of Cambodia’s Mother Support Group Network – a network of community-based associations that actively promote exclusive breastfeeding in rural areas as part of the country’s Baby-Friendly Community Initiative.

The mother of a healthy three-year-old, Sun Vandy, 35, explains her reasons for joining the network: "I wanted to take care of the children," she says. "I wished to help them and their mothers and to be proud of my village."

'Model Mothers'

Ka Hang's 'Model Mothers' are actively supporting exclusive breastfeeding to reduce infant mortality rates in Cambodia.

Ms. Vandy, who is a Model Mother in her group, points out that it is challenging to sustain exclusive breastfeeding during the rainy season, especially for poor women who must work in the fields during this labour-intensive phase of rice cultivation.

During traditional festivals, when the villagers gather for celebrations, Ms. Vandy tries to reach out to pregnant women and new mothers. She reminds families that breast milk is not only the best way to feed babies, it is also the least expensive.

The initiative expands

Since its launch in 50 villages by the Cambodian Ministry of Health in 2004, the Baby-Friendly Community Initiative has expanded considerably. Today, the initiative covers 2,675 villages – 20 per cent of all the villages in the country.

The UNICEF-backed effort also receives support from Cambodia-based non-governmental organization Reproductive and Child Health Alliance, as well as CARE Cambodia.

Mother Support Groups across rural Cambodia are credited in significant measure with saving the lives of infants.

Seeking the best for their children

Bou Sreynoun, 25, is a mother of three. She has firsthand experience with the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding.

Ms. Sreynoun fed her first-born son a mixture of breast milk and water, and noticed that he was often sick. Since joining a Mother Support Group, she has learned alternate feeding practices. Her three-month-old child, Koeun Sikheng, has been exclusively breastfed and is healthier because of it.

Personal stories of breastfeeding like Ms. Sreynoun's are a critical part of the communication strategy in Cambodia. The sharing of knowledge that takes place within the Mother Support Group Network is aimed at reaching rural women who, like the mothers of Ka Hang, seek the best means to protect the health of their infants.

Participants in a typical group include the village chief, a traditional birth attendant and two Model Mothers. Additionally, local health volunteers are on hand to serve as intermediaries between the villagers and health centre staff.

Besides holding frequent, informal discussions with pregnant women and nursing mothers in their own villages, members of Mother Support Groups from several villages also gather for quarterly meetings at a local health centre to compare notes on their experiences.