Religious leaders empower families to create healthier futures through exclusive breastfeeding
Reimagining a healthy future for children in Sierra Leone
Freetown - Mahawa is a healthy six-month-old baby who lives in Freetown, western Sierra Leone with her parents Kelfala and Fatmata. Mahawa has been nicknamed “Biggie” by neighbours because she is larger in size than most babies her age. She chuckles at the sight of Fatmata her mother because she can reach for the natural nutritious milk she gets from her breasts, at will. Her mother says she gives her the liberty to do so anytime. “She loves to breastfeed, and I let her do that whenever she wants to,” says Fatmata.
Mahawa Kamara was born into a community where myths and misconceptions about infant feeding practices prevailed. Her mother, Fatmata, a first-time mother, initially faced uncertainty of whether to exclusively breastfeed Mahawa for the first six months or not. This was fueled mostly by people in her community, who believed that giving water or other foods to infants from an early age was necessary for their growth and development. Overwhelmed by conflicting advice, Fatmata wavered between tradition and the desire to provide the best possible start for her child.
In Sierra Leone, only 54. 1 per cent of infants are exclusively breastfed from birth up to 6 months, and only 30 per cent of children are breastfed up to 24 months. To improve breastfeeding practices in the country, UNICEF through the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, collaborated with FOCUS 1000 (a local Non-Governmental Organization), with generous support from Irish Aid, to support 192 religious leaders to address the factors hindering the adoption of optimal breastfeeding practices, through the Stronger with Breastmilk Only (SWBO) campaign at the community level.
Training and capacity-building programs designed specifically for these religious leaders were organized, to equip them with accurate information and practical skills, and perspectives from the Holy Quran and Bible, to address the misconceptions and challenges related to infant and young child feeding, particularly around exclusive breastfeeding.
With thanks to this support, religious leaders are becoming powerful advocates for exclusive breastfeeding in the country. They have taken up the mantle to improve infant and young child feeding practices by promoting the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life in Sierra Leone. They are empowering mothers and families to make informed decisions and nurture healthier infants for the future during prayer sessions and naming ceremonies. “Amidst the joyous celebrations that follow the birth of a baby, we emphasize the importance of providing the nourishment and protection that breast milk offers during a child's first six months,” says Sheik Ibrahim Sesay of Masjid Atayiba in Freetown. “By integrating these vital messages into the gatherings, we are doing our bit to ensure that the blessings bestowed upon newborns are complemented by a strong nutrition foundation,” he adds.
It was during one of these prayer sessions at a local mosque in Freetown, that Fatmata’s dilemma was quelled by the local religious leaders. Encouraged by the support she received and armed with the understanding that her religious leaders firmly support exclusive breastfeeding, Fatmata gained the confidence to embark on her exclusive breastfeeding journey after her baby’s birth.
Months passed, and Mahawa thrived under the loving nourishment of her mother's breast milk. Fatmata witnessed firsthand the positive impact exclusive breastfeeding had on her baby's growth, health, and overall well-being. She had a birthweight of 3.2kg and now weighs 8.5kg at six months of age. According to her mother, their only visits to health facilities have been for immunizations and routine health checks. Mahawa's sparkling eyes and infectious giggles are a testament to the power of this simple act of love and nourishment. Her journey from a vulnerable newborn to a thriving six-month-old exemplifies the incredible potential locked within every child when given the gift of exclusive breastfeeding.
“The respect bestowed on religious leaders and their influence on people provide a unique opportunity to promote exclusive breastfeeding and dispel misconceptions surrounding infant feeding practices,” says Mariama Bah, UNICEF Nutrition Specialist. “The partnership is a powerful testament to the potential of collaboration in creating a healthier future for every child," she adds.
The story of Mahawa serves as a shining example of success in nurturing healthier futures through a dedicated effort of exclusive breastfeeding. Inspired by Fatmata's courage and the unwavering support of the religious leaders, more and more mothers are now embracing exclusive breastfeeding. “People ask me which kinds of food will make their children grow well” she says. “I always tell them to practice exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months, as it is the secret behind my baby’s health.”
Fatmata is convinced that breastfeeding her infant provides more than just good nutrition: “It also gives me a chance to hold my baby close, cuddle her, and make eye contact,” she says, adding that those moments are relaxing and enjoyable, and bring them closer together emotionally. She is also very proud that everyone admires her baby’s growth and wants to keep up with that performance. “I’m trying hard to continue breastfeeding her until she is at least 2 years old because breast milk is really the best food for her,” she adds.
The message of the religious leaders on exclusive breastfeeding has been well received by Fatmata and others in her community. The impact of these efforts extends far beyond individual families and will help to build an enduring legacy of improved infant and young child feeding practices and ensure healthier futures for generations to come.