A mother too soon

At 15, baby-faced Kimberly is a mother to 6-month-old Princess

Jacques DM Gimeno
A young mother breastfeeds her baby
KHI/2020/Marino M. Abogado Jr.
29 July 2020

The most surprising thing about 15-year-old Kimberly Alvarado is not that she gave birth at a very young age. After all, teenage pregnancy is an alarming problem in the Philippines where the government declared it a national social emergency with numbers reaching as high as 574 pregnancies a day in 2017.

What's striking about Kimberly, herself looking no older than 11, is the depth of her understanding of mother and child nutrition, something that was unfamiliar to most people in her barangay (village) a year ago.

An exterior shot of a village hall
HKI/2020/Marino M. Abogado, Jr.
The Catioan Barangay Hall is a 15-minute walk from Kimberly's home. It is where local officials conduct business and where health services are made available to the 3,200 residents.

Kimberly lives in Bgy. Catioan, Municipality of Capalonga, in the Province of Camarines Norte. The coastal municipality is home to 30,000 people whose primary livelihood is in agriculture. Approximately 330 km from Manila, it is a third-class municipality which boasts of white sand beaches with 9 of its 22 barangays located along the Pacific coast.

Economic progress in Capalonga has been slow and the pressing challenge of malnutrition continues to hound residents who experience high levels of stunting, wasting, underweight, overweight or obesity, and a host of micronutrient deficiencies affecting mothers and children.

Nurturing the first 1,000 days of life

But in 2019, the barangay would experience a gradual shift in their understanding of nutrition when the First 1,000 Days (F1KD) program under Nutrition International's 'Right Start Initiative' was introduced by UNICEF and Helen Keller International in Capalonga, one of 45 cities and municipalities nationwide chosen to benefit from the three-year initiative. The mothers and children in Bgy. Catioan, including Kimberly and her baby, were among those who participated in various seminars and mothers' classes on mother and child nutrition.

Three health workers talking to a resident not visible in the photo
HKI/2020/Marino M. Abogado, Jr.
Public health nurse Sherry Ann Ollesca (in pink) and barangay health workers Ma. Cecilia Cordis (back) and Azenith Lamedra (front) help the people of Catioan improve their nutrition status through the F1KD program.
A UNICEF staff member in a cyan t-shirt and a health worker crossing a narrow bridge made of bamboo poles
HKI/2020/Marino M. Abogado, Jr.
The road to Kimberly's home is mostly paved, with some rough patches especially as it gets closer to their purok (small units of households within a barangay). To reach her house, we crossed an unsteady bridge made up of bamboo poles crudely tied together.

"I was very happy to learn I was going to have a baby."

When we visited Kimberly at her home, she didn't quite understand why we came. "What's this for?" she asks. We tell her that her story will inspire people when they learn how such a young girl is already a responsible and smart mother. A typical teenager, she simply lets out a shy, yet proud smile as she cradles her baby.

Kimberly tells us that as soon as she found out she was pregnant, she told her 19-year-old boyfriend and shortly after, her parents. "I was very happy to learn I was going to have a baby," she says. What followed were regular visits to the barangay hall for prenatal check-ups, completing her course of iron folic acid, and strictly following a proper diet until she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Azenith Lamedra, the barangay health worker who's been helping Kimberly since she was pregnant, attested that she was the best participant in the program—following advice on exclusive breastfeeding and eating the right food to stay healthy, something that mothers much older than her have found difficult to do.

A UNICEF staff member in a blue UNICEF t-shirt and a health worker speaking with a young mother holding her baby at her home
HKI/2020/Marino M. Abogado, Jr.
The author and a barangay health worker visiting Kimberly at her home in Barangay Catioan.
The kitchen in Kimberly's house
HKI/2020/Marino M. Abogado, Jr.
Kimberly prepares meals on their charcoal-powered cooker. Her meals consist of rice and broth with vegetables or meat. She believes she needs to eat healthy to produce healthy breast milk.

Kimberly's plan for her young family is simple. She says she and her husband just want to give their child the best chance in life by raising her well-nourished and protected from illnesses and preparing her for school in the future. She's also determined to complete her studies through the Alternative Learning System of the Department of Education.

And so far, she's been doing a great job. Baby Princess is a very healthy infant whose vaccinations are up-to-date. Her weight is just right for her age and she rarely gets sick.

Kimberly holds her baby Princess
HKI/2020/Marino M. Abogado, Jr.

“I will go back to my studies when she's big enough. My dream is to become a teacher.”

F1KD services continue amid COVID-19

Sherry Ann Ollesca, a public health nurse at the Rural Health Unit in Capalonga, is glad that young mothers like Kimberly are learning a lot from the program. She says the barangay, including the health workers and nutrition scholars, now have an appreciation for nutrition and the importance of the first 1,000 days of life.

And although the imposed community quarantine has made movement difficult, the barangay health workers and nutrition scholars go house-to-house delivering services such as counseling, vitamin supplements, and vaccination to the families of Catioan.

Support UNICEF's programmes to address malnutrition in the Philippines by donating at https://donate.unicef.ph