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UNICEF and IKEA partner for healthier babies in Jharkand state, India

© UNICEF/2010/Crouch
Chilgi Topo and her daughter Sushima at an anganwadi health centre in Jharkhand state, India.

By Diane Coulter

KHUNTI, India, 2 September 2010 – Bilkani Sangha shakes her head in amazement when she recalls how she first fed her newborn baby. She remembers dipping a cloth into warm goat’s milk mixed with honey and jungle herbs, then slowly dripping the concoction into her tiny child’s mouth.

She wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her son for almost two days until all the colostrum – the highly nutritious first milk produced by a mother after childbirth – could be squeezed from her breasts and discarded. Older villagers considered the milk ‘dirty’ and ‘useless.’

As a new mother, Ms. Sangha wasn’t given any food to eat for three days, just turmeric water as part of a purification ritual that left her almost too weak to begin breastfeeding.

Support for new mothers

If her newborn lost weight, started to vomit or had diarrhoea, people just blamed bad luck, not unsanitary feeding practices.

© UNICEF/2010/Crouch
Bikani Sangha, left, is one of about 9,000 female health and child-care workers in villages in Jharkhand state, India.

“Those were the old ways and they were very bad for babies,” said Ms. Sangha, 50.

Her son, now 25, survived. But Ms. Sangha knows a number of other children who started a downward spiral into severe malnutrition and even death.

“That’s why I’m happy teaching mothers in my village on how to do things properly,” said  Ms. Sangha, who now works as an ‘anganwadi,’ or a village health worker. “I tell them breastfeeding is the best and only way to feed new babies.”

Thanks to Sangha and about 9,000 other anganwadi across the Indian state of Jharkhand, about 1.3 million families are now getting support for proper breastfeeding practices.

Reaching the most vulnerable

The anganwadi programme is supported by the generous funding of the IKEA Social Initiative – the philanthropic wing of the international furniture company – and its partnership with UNICEF and the state and Indian governments.

© UNICEF/2010/Crouch
A baby nurses in India's impoverished Jharkhand state.

Jharkhand is one of the poorest states in India. It has a large percentage of people living below the poverty line and a significant tribal, or indigenous, population. Many young children here are malnourished.

In India, rates of acute malnutrition, or ‘wasting,’ are twice as high as the average in sub-Saharan Africa, and ten times higher than in Latin America. Currently, an estimated 25 million children under five are wasted in India and some 60 million are underweight.  Typically much of this damage occurs in the pre-natal and first two years of a child’s life, stunting growth, brain development, eventual school performance and adult productivity.

Most of the children affected are born to the region’s poorest families.

New habits

At the moment, Ms. Sangha is counselling new mother Taramani Devi and her two-month-old daughter, Lalita. The baby is tucked under a fold in Ms. Devi’s olive-green sari as she breastfeeds. At times, only the baby’s feet can be seen shaking tiny silver bangles around her ankles. The family is of the indigenous Mahto tribe.

© UNICEF/2010/Crouch
Villagers gather outside the local anganwadi health centre for a nutrition education session in Phudi village, Jharkhand state, India.

Ms. Sangha tells Ms. Devi to lean back against the hut’s mud-plastered wall and be comfortable. They chat about proper arm positions and the child’s nipple latch.

“Before, women used to just walk around and work while they breastfed,” explained Ms. Sangha. “They didn’t think about how the baby was feeding or whether it was enough.”

Because of earlier sessions with the health worker, Ms. Devi knew to start breastfeeding within one hour of her baby’s delivery. She also made sure to eat lentils and rice for her own strength and milk production. The child got also received her first milk, which Ms. Sangha told her was akin to the baby’s first immunization.

Gazing at her son Karthik, 4, Ms. Devi says that her second child is already stronger than her first. “Lalita is growing so well because she’s breastfeeding with me from the beginning,” she said.

‘Care and love’

Ms. Sangha and Ms. Devi’s counselling relationship is one link in an intricate chain of support for women and children that is extending slowly across India.

Funding from the IKEA Social Initiative currently supports UNICEF and the Indian Government through a three-year project, started in 2009, to further extend the anganwadi programme to some 22 million Indian children. Known in Jharkhand as ‘Dular,’ or ‘care and love,’ the programme is up and running in five of the state’s districts.

 According to a recent evaluation, mothers in Dular villages were almost three times more likely than other women to exclusively breastfeed newborns and avoid old practices. They had significantly higher rates of first milk feeding, and the percentage of underweight children in the villages was drastically reduced.

“Regular breastfeeding is no longer a problem here,” said Ms. Devi. “It is a fully accepted practice now.”

Best nutrition

Breastfeeding is the best and most basic way of preventing malnutrition and boosting resistance to disease, said UNICEF Chief of Field Office in Jharkhand Dr. Prakash Gurnani.

It is also part of a major effort to help India meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals target related to child health. The MDGs, a set of internationally recognized targets for reducing poverty worldwide, call for reducing the global under-five mortality rate by two-thirds by the year 2015.

“It’s so wonderful to have the IKEA Social Initiative here,” said Dr. Gurnani. “What could be better than a simple, home-based solution that costs nothing and improves so many children’s lives?”



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