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Côte d'Ivoire

A champion for breastfeeding in Côte d'Ivoire

© UNICEF Video
Madame Bah meets many women and families at her stall in the Abobo central market. She is now using her position in the community to teach women about the benefits of breastfeeding.


By Eva Gilliam and Ange Aye-Ake

ABOBO, Côte D’Ivoire, 7 August 2017 – “My strategy is my smile. With a smile people listen, and feel loved,” says Madame Bah.

From the Abobo central market where she sells “African gold” (beaded necklaces and wedding attire), to washing laundry in her home courtyard – Madame Bah’s warmth is so permeating that she is known in the community as Mama Gentille (Mother Nice).

Her infectious smile is perhaps put to best use at MIBEF (Mouvement Ivoirien pour le Bien Etre Familial/Ivoirian Movement for Family Well-being), her NGO that promotes breastfeeding in Abobo, one of Abidjan’s largest slums. She spends most of her time going door to door, answering calls and assisting in live births.

When she talks to mothers, she stresses the importance of not giving any food or water to the child for the first six months.

“In every Ivoirian language, breastmilk is referred to as ‘water of the breast,’” explains Madame Bah. “So if you think your child is thirsty, give him the breast. If you think he’s hungry, give him the breast. It’s easy.”

But underneath Madame Bah’s positivity lies a past of hardship and loss.

“If I speak today, passionately, about exclusive breastfeeding and complementary feeding after six months, it’s because I have been through a few difficult times myself,” says Bah. “I gave birth to nine children, and only five are still living. I used to be the one to ‘wash’ the babies – my own, but also the babies in the neighbourhood. This means giving them water to drink as well as water enemas just after birth. We thought it was good for the baby – but they would just bloat up, and then get sick. And often they would die.”

Madame Bah is now one of the driving forces promoting exclusive breastfeeding in Abdidjan, and her work has helped make a huge impact on the lives of mothers and their children.

In just five years – from 2011 to 2016 – the exclusive breastfeeding rate in Côte d’Ivoire increased in from 12 per cent to 23.5 per cent.

“I used to find it hard to wake up at night,” says a new mother visited by Bah every week. “But now I know when to feed my baby, and how.”

Recognizing the importance of nutrition for survival and development – including its long-term effect on cognitive development, learning ability and economy – the Government of Côte d’Ivoire joined the Scaling-up Nutrition (SUN) movement in 2013, which has proven to be a turning point in its fight against stunting and all forms of malnutrition. Nutrition is a priority for the Government. Côte d’Ivoire is in the midst of making important policy choices to address the wide range of nutritional deficiencies impairing children’s growth and development. UNICEF works with the Ivoirian government, donors, United Nations agencies and civil society organizations such as the International Baby Food Action Network, to scale-up essential nutrition interventions and to promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.

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