Tea Garden workers take time out from a busy day to rally for breastfeeding.
ASSAM, India, 20 August 2009 – World Breastfeeding Week was marked by a cascade of celebrations in the northeastern State of Assam. Quite literally, breastfeeding messages cascaded, in myriad of forms, from the state to districts, to blocks to villages, reaching out to over a million people.
It all began on the first of August, when the week-long celebrations were flagged off at a State-level meeting of key stakeholders, including officials from the Government of Assam (Health and Family Welfare, National Rural Health Mission and Social Welfare), Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), UNICEF, medical practitioners, academics and NGOs.
“Hospitals are the key learning grounds. It is here that mothers and their relatives learn about the correct breastfeeding practices. So, it is essential that wrong messages do not percolate to the masses,” stated Dr JN Sharma, Head, Department of Pediatrics, Gauhati Medical College.
Key messages on early and exclusive breastfeeding cascaded into a mass movement as the 27 districts in the state, got on the roll on August 3, organizing district-level meetings and activities.
The blocks got going on August 4, with rallies, interactive quizzes, film-shows, role-plays, and story-writing competitions.
And the villages, some 26,000 of them, joined the fray the next day, through the 5,000 Health sub-centres across 150 Blocks, mobilizing hundreds of frontline functionaries, the ASHAs, Anganwadi Workers and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives, and NGOs, to reach out to individual families, especially pregnant and lactating mothers, with the key messages on breastfeeding.
The strategic scheduling of state, district, block and village level celebrations on successive days helped consolidate efforts, and had a flow-on, multiplier effect, says Dr Asheesh Jain, Child Development and Nutritiion Officer, UNICEF Assam.
Enhancing the visibility of messages
This substantially enhanced the visibility and reach of the messages, he adds, “and will hopefully lead to more mothers initiating breastfeeding within the first hour of birth and exclusively for six months.”
The breastfeeding trends in Assam have improved over the last few years but are still far from the desired level.
Only 50 per cent of 0-3 year-old children in Assam are breastfed within one hour of birth. Around 63.1 per cent children of 0-5 months are exclusively breastfed.
Almost 40 per cent of 0-3 years children in Assam are underweight. At 66 per 1,000 live births, the State has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country.
The link between breastfeeding, undernutrition and infant mortality is well established. The campaign focused on explaining this link and promoting the benefits and practice of breastfeeding in a synchronized and sustained manner.
Collaboration, convergence led to encouraging results
Additional Deputy Commissioner, Bongaigaon District, MS Manivannan, urged workers to converge with Village Health Nutrition Days, held every Wednesday, and “incorporate the message of breastfeeding in all VHNDs.”
In Balijana Block of Goalpara district, the local Priest of the Christian community and Nokhma, the religious head of the Garo community addressed a joint meeting, which ensured the messages were well received by the community.
Special Matr-Pitr Sabhas in several villages brought together mothers and especially fathers, to understand how they could support the initiation and continuation of breastfeeding.
But what moved most community workers at the many awareness meetings was the story of Monmoti, a tea garden worker of Dibrugarh. Monmati couldn’t breastfeed her child owing to long hours spent plucking tea leaves. Then, one day, Nami Devi, the ASHA in her village, told her how important breast milk was to improve her child’s immunity against diseases.
Now, Monmati’s family `breastfeeds’ the child while she’s out plucking tea leaves, safe in the knowledge that she’s not depriving her child of mother’s milk and a healthy start to life.
Women of Assam contribute towards making the State one of the largest tea-producing States, however many of their infants and young children miss out on basic nutrition and healthcare.
“UNICEF is partnering with the Government of Assam to promote Infant and Young Child Nutrition initiatives in the State and promotion of Breastfeeding is a crucial aspect of IYCN, says Jeroo Master, Chief UNICEF, Assam.
Early and Exclusive breastfeeding is important for healthy children -- mothers and families in Assam are slowly coming to realize this, and herein lies the hope for addressing child mortality and undernutrition in the State.