Lessons from Phonthong: awareness is key
Mrs.Neu and Mrs. Saikham live in Phonthong village in upland Laos. Mrs. Saikham has had the opportunity and support from her family to complete her higher education and is now a teacher. Mrs. Neu stopped attending school after the first few grades of primary school. Although, their respective home situation is very different, both their children are affected by malnutrition. SNV's ENUFF project works with young mothers and their families in Phonthong and many other communities in upland Laos to improve the situation.- by Prianka Basnet
Mrs. Neu gave birth to her first child at the age of 19, baby Nong. Her pregnancy was not an easy one as she suffered from headaches, constant backaches and leg cramps. Being one of the poorer families in the village, she had to continue with the farm work and carry heavy loads during her pregnancy. It has been 5 months since she has given birth but the stomach aches continue. Her breasts are underdeveloped and she is unable to produce any milk. She says that during her pregnancy her mother advised her not to eat too much.
Due to extreme weather events, her family's last harvest was barely sufficient to last them until the next harvest (7 months). Their means of income are low and as a result, they rarely consume meat and the few chickens they own they will sell off to earn some income. As a result, the family mostly eats rice, bamboo shoots and greens they have foraged from the forest. Unable to breastfeed, Mrs. Neu has been feeding her child infant formula mixed with rice water. “I cannot afford to buy a box of infant formula every month, so I mix it with rice water and feed her.” From her diet it is evident that baby Nong is not getting sufficient nutrients.
Mrs. Neu had not attended any of the ENUFF project health sessions before. Today however she decided to stay back so she could attend the workshop.
Mrs.Saikham 8 months pregnant with her 2.5-year-old daughter
Mrs. Neu with baby Nong
On the other side of the village, Mrs. Saikham at the age of 28 is getting ready for her second pregnancy. She got married at 25 and has a daughter of two and a half years old. She and her husband, both teachers, have a decent income.
Mrs. Saikham has attended all the health sessions conducted by the ENUFF district team. She is well aware of the importance of a diverse diet during pregnancy and for young child feeding. For her current pregnancy she makes sure to eat fish, chicken and duck, a luxury for many in Phonthong. She understands the importance of breastfeeding. “After my first child was born I was only given 3 months maternity leave. So after that time my mother in law took care of my daughter in the day time. She would feed my daughter infant formula. Luckily, now the government gives us 5 months of leave, so I will be able to breastfeed my newborn for at least 5 months.”
There are many factors that limit Mrs.Neu from being healthy and having healthy children. The lack of education and communication on proper behaviour is one of them. Her only source of advice is her mother, who is also unaware of the importance of the proper nutrition and care during the first years of a child's life (i.e. the first 1000 days). Unlike the other women at the session, Mrs. Neu’s mother was not easily convinced. This is common where traditional customs and beliefs have been handed down through generations.
The ENUFF project with its Social and Behaviour Change Communication strategy, will continue to raise awareness of the importance of proper nutrition for young infants and promote positive behaviours and social norms. The aim is to have more people like Mrs. Saikham, Mrs. Neu and her mother to adopt healthier practices for their children.