Mother-to-mother support groups help to prevent malnutrition in South Sudan
Good nutrition lessons from the peer mother-to-mother nutrition support groups in South Sudan's Bentiu town
Bentiu, South Sudan - It's a clear morning at the Bieh IDP site in South Sudan's Bentiu town, Unity state. The bright sun is not yet high in the sky, and it's a regular day for many, so the roads to the IDP site is busier than usual and the Bieh Nutrition Center is a buzz with many voices. Amongst the group is a mother-to-mother support group for nutrition ready to step in and assist the many mothers and their malnourished children.
UNICEF and its partners support the formation of mother-to-mother support groups in response to high malnutrition rates in South Sudan. The groups of women are of varying ages, and all mothers themselves and have important experiences appropriate feeding, breastfeeding and cooking practices.
Due to recurring floods, most crops and gardens have been washed away, but they establish demonstration gardens using a different approach. They plant small vegetables in old sacks, buckets, jerricans, and other containers. These vegetables complement their children’s diets, particularly that of children 6-23 Months.
Tabitha Nyakhan Gatwech, a mother of four children, heads the Bieh IDP site mother-to-mother support groups. At water points, schools and nutrition centres, she counsels other mothers with the skills to grow and cook assorted vegetables with the much-needed nutritional elements to prevent malnutrition in babies and mothers.
Nyakhan is driving the resilience of local communities through small-scale kitchen gardens and information for other mothers. "I work with mothers; I instruct them what UNICEF and partners have taught us on how mothers should care for their babies to prevent malnutrition,” she said
"I teach them how to prepare fresh vegetables for their children. When the women tasted the vegetables, they learned the importance of preparing appropriate complementary foods for children 6-23 months. The health status of my own children has improved greatly as a result."
Understanding mother-to-mother support groups comes with a sense of trust, acceptance, self-worth, value, and respect. When mothers are supported, they can share information better, learn new skills, talk about their thoughts and feelings, and feel connected to others.
"I started sensitising mothers on how this home-grown food is good for their children. I know this because I have tested it," said Nyakhan.
"If nobody stops malnutrition, we will"
Many mothers in the Bieh IDP site have started planting and tending to vegetable gardens since they learnt the value of nutritious foods for their children and families. They take advantage of any open area around the IDP site to cultivate and grow vegetables.
"I am overwhelmingly happy about this support. When someone helps you to raise your children, there is nothing to compare it with. Even now, if the aid workers who support us come here, I would run to welcome them with happiness," Nyakhan said at the sidelines of the cooking lessons.
This kitchen garden initiative has empowered mothers to prepare nutritious local recipes from assorted vegetables. "We are so happy about all these new diets; they greatly help our children to grow healthy", she concluded.
"I feel transformed over these last few months," said Anna Nyatuai Manyan, a mother and beneficiary of the initiative. "In South Sudan, we, the mothers, used to suffer a lot before our training. However, those of us who have undergone training are now doing better with our children; we can even laugh," she added.
Training on preparing more nutritious foods for young children has helped many mothers at the Bieh IDP site. “Before, we did not know how it was done, but now we know, which is good for us. As a result, our children are now stronger and healthier than before,” said Nyatuai. "When babies and mothers eat less nutritious food, they can develop stomachaches, sickness and other diseases; good food improves a child's and mother's health," Nyatuai emphasized.
An estimated 2.2 million people will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2023. Out of the 1.4 million children under five in this number, 350,000 will suffer from severe acute malnutrition across South Sudan. This places even higher importance on prevention strategies such as those implemented by mother-to-mother support groups.
Across the country there are approximately 4,700 members of the mother-to-mother support groups.
Mr Jal Kuemis is a social mobiliser, conducting daily door-to-door visits and mobilizing mothers with malnourished children to attend the Nutrition Centres and get their children screened and seek support from the nutrition experts and mother-to-mother support groups. His job is to support the community and help reduce childhood malnutrition.
Kueims and his colleagues start the day by gathering many mothers in the community to teach them why screening their children for malnutrition is important. They go from house to house with a megaphone and ask mothers to come and meet them.
"I also screen children for malnutrition directly in the community. If I suspect a child is malnourished. I advise the mother to take the child to a health facility where they can be further screened and receive treatment," said Kueims. "I love my job so much because it makes me feel proud to work in the community to provide children with a healthy future," he added.
UNICEF South Sudan’s nutrition programmes in Bentiu and across South Sudan are generously supported with funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), the German Corporation through the KFW Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), UK Aid, Canada and UNICEF National Committees.