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Examples of 'positive deviance' in habits leading to malnutrition in West Bengal

© UNICEF India/2009/ Khemka
Two-year-old Aparna eats a nutritious meal while her mother looks on at a government supported 'Anganwadi' childcare centre in West Bengal.

By Angela Walker

DUMURDI, India, 11 January 2010 – Bharati Mandi walks to her local  'Angawadi'  – a government sponsored centre for mothers and children in India – each day with her four-month-old son Biswajit and her three-year-old daughter Shampa. Together with other mothers, she prepares herself a healthy mid-day meal of lentils, rice and vegetables.

“I come here to learn about child feeding, to learn how to take care of my child,” she says. “If I consume this food, I will be able to breastfeed my son, because I’ll have more milk. By eating this food my children are healthier.”

Bharati and her children are part of a 'positive deviance' programme mobilizing community resources to tackle malnutrition in this poverty-stricken village of 565 inhabitants. The 'positive deviants', in this case, are families with healthier children.

'Why can't we do it?'

In West Bengal, the positive deviance program is popularly known as 'Keno Parbo Na', meaning 'Why can’t we do it?' The initiative works to bring about sustained behavioural change among parents to improve feeding practices for children three-years-old and under.

© UNICEF India/2009/ Khemka
Women updating a child's 'growth chart' at the Durmurdi Angawadi Centre in West Bengal.

All families in Dumurdi struggle equally with poverty and deprivation but some children are better nourished than others. The programme is based on the belief that understanding the care and feeding patterns of the families is key to helping all children.

At the core of positive deviance is the belief that there is significant wisdom and untapped resources inherent in communities, enabling villagers to use existing solutions to address complex problems. The approach uses collective learning to identify positive nutrition practices by individual families which can be adapted by the larger community.

Teaching children about nutrition

The classes are held at local Angawadi centres, where older children are occupied with games, songs and other activities which teach them in a fun way about good health, nutrition and hygiene practices.

“I find it very interesting to deal with children. They are the future generation,” says Monica Rajwar, who runs the Dumurdi centre.

Community members contribute eggs and vegetables, like okra, pumpkin and peas. Mothers learn how to cook more nutritious meals, which in turn creates community ownership in the management of child malnutrition.

Many elements to success

Nutrition practices based on false information can lead to malnutrition. Gender discrimination is often a factor. For instance, a girl twin may not get as much breast milk as her twin brother, noted Ms. Rajwar.

Some families have misconceptions about breast milk. A mother may introduce honey rather than exclusively breastfeed, based on a belief that honey makes your child 'talk sweetly'.

“Community engagement is key to addressing malnutrition,” said Chief of UNICEF’s  West Bengal office Lori Calvo.

“When positive deviance was developed, the mothers began to realize the importance of addressing malnutrition,” said the Government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) supervisor in Purulia, Monjary Chakraborty. “The mothers are empowered and now are able to make decisions that are accepted by the family.”



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