TIMMLAPUR, India 24 July 2016- It's hard to imagine that two-year-old Vaishnavi was once so underweight that she didn't have the strength to feed on her mother's milk. Her mother, Drakshaiyani Minikanavar sat with other women at the Anganwadi Centre (government health and day-care centre), and watched as her daughter ran around trying to steal bananas.
"I didn't think it was possible for her to be this active," she said. "When she was born she weighed 1.5 kg. The hospital told us to come here, and we learnt about feeding and what are the best foods for children. She now weighs 7.5 kg
and is on her way to good health."
Child malnutrition is the single biggest contributor to deaths in children-under-five, as they are more susceptible to infections and recover slowly from illness. A community based counselling and nutrition initiative called 'Sneha Shivir' is changing this trend in the state of Karnataka. Begun by UNICEF and partners a year ago, it plays an instrumental role in helping children, like Vaishnavi, gain weight and become healthy. Under the programme, women come for 12 days to the local Anganwadi centre in their village. They are taught about nutritious foods, given recipes to cook for their children, and then the Anganwadi workers support the mothers in feeding their children.
The Supervisor at the Women and Child Welfare Department, Lakshmi Madiwalar, has seen a dramatic improvement in child malnutrition since the project started. She travels each month to different Anganwadi Centres and has personally seen the improvements over time.
"Initially, mothers didn't want to miss work and come to the centre for 12 days. But now, they see the change in their children. They come to me and say that they are sorry they were so reluctant before," she said with a smile.
UNICEF has trained several other supervisors like Madiwalar on good nutrition and helped develop the 12-day programme. These trainers have gone out to different Anganwadi Centres and passed on this knowledge to the workers. Shardha Kolli is one of the women who took part in the training, and has been an Anganwadi worker for eight years. She said she loves her job working with children. During one of the 12-day 'Sneha Shivir' sessions, mothers crowded around her, as she sat with a colourful platter of fruit and vegetables. She taught them how to create dishes that both children and the entire family could enjoy, like fruit mixed with yoghurt.
"In the 12-day sessions we teach the mothers different recipes for cooking food for their children. Local ingredients are available, but they don't use them. For example radish leaves are something that people normally throw away, but they are nutritious and can be eaten," she said. "Most of the people who come here work as daily agricultural labourers, and can't afford vegetables more than three times a week, so tips like these are essential to help people
eat more nutritious food."
Good hygiene is also a key part of the sessions, and Kolli carefully demonstrated to the women how to wash their hands and then their vegetables, so their children wouldn't fall sick.
In an effort to get even the poorest families to eat well, Kolli also showed the mothers the Anganwadi Nutri-Garden at the front of the building. It was full of healthy looking spinach plants, and blue flowers of bean plants climbed up the wall. The vegetables are used in the midday meal for children. Kolli encouraged mothers to think about growing their own gardens in whatever limited space they had.
By the end of the course, every mother had had an opportunity to participate in cooking the new recipes, and to discuss good practices that work for them to keep their children healthy. UNICEF Nutrition Specialist, Laxmi Bhawani underlined the importance of community learning.
"Mothers are able to understand better from their peers, rather than outsiders. It is also better as the sessions are taught in their local language, using words they are familiar with," Laxmi said.
At the end of the 12 days, the mothers go back home, but the Anganwadi workers check on them there for a further 18 days, and make sure that their babies are gaining weight. In the first month, Anganwadi workers weigh babies every week, and after that every two weeks. The results are carefully plotted on a weight chart, so they can detect the early symptoms of malnutrition.
In order to support mothers and pass on practices of good nutrition to future generations an important part of "
Sneha Shivir' is the community engagement. In each village, the Adolescent Girls Groups have adopted two families
and take over home visits to ensure that good child-feeding practices are being implemented at home.
Seventeen-year-old Shruti Adikarnataka said that she played an active part in the Adolescent Girls Group in Timmlapur village. She explained that she and her friends formed the group so they could discuss different issues. They also learnt about good nutrition from the Anganwadi Workers and have passed this knowledge on to their
"I love teaching children so much that I lose track of time," Shruti said, with a laugh. "I go on home visits to the two families I have adopted, and make sure that they are following not only good nutrition practices, but also hygiene
practices. If they don't follow them, I speak to the mothers about what they are missing."
By involving communities at every level, and teaching them good nutrition, UNICEF and the local government are not only trying to improve malnutrition in the present, but to create a sustained change for the future. Adolescent girls like Shruti are proof that the next generation will have better essential information on good nutrition and hygiene.
"I will make sure that when I have children that I will feed them properly," Shruti said seriously. "I want to make sure
that my children will grow and be healthy."