By Thrity Cawasji
It was 9.00 a.m. Subhash Stadium, usually deserted at this hour, was abuzz with activity. Loudspeakers blasting jingles, vans, sumo carriers, cycle rickshaws, all with their colourful posters and props, rolling in to assemble in a row, folk artists in their finery trouping in....... this was no ordinary day, the 1st of August 2009, in Raipur, the capital city of Chhattisgarh. They had assembled together to kick-start a campaign to promote early and exclusive breastfeeding, to carry the message far and wide, to communities in urban slums and rural interiors.
Ms Lata Usendi, Minister, Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD), who was scheduled to leave the city early in the morning, made it a point to delay her departure and be present to flag-off the vans, rickshaws and folk artists as they started their seven-day journey to spread simple life-saving messges to the masses - messages that communicate the benefits of breastfeeding, for the monther and the child.
"Achieving reductions in IMR and MMR are difficult tasks, but UNICEF has shown the way and demonstrated that this can be achieved" said Ms Usendi, Minister, Department of Women and Child Development.
The campaign, oranised by UNICEF to support the state government's efforts, will cover 130 locations, interacting with communities and performing folk shows, popularly known as 'nukkad natak' - street corner plays, in addition tomaking street announcements in and around the city of Raipur.
The situation in the state of Chhattisgarh is encouraging with about 50 percent newborns being initiated to breastfeeding within one hour and 79 percent infants of six months and below being exclusively breastfed. There is a need to build on this positive trend to ensure that there is no slippage in these figures,which must only improve. In 2004, exclusive breastfeeding rates were at 35 percent which increased to 79 percent in 2008 due to efforts by Anganwadi (child care) Workers and Mitanins (grassroots health volunteers). During the same period, the Infant Mortality Rates (IMR) fell from 79 / 1000 live births to 51 / 1000 live births. Early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding significantly contributed to this major achievement - a reason enough to continue the efforts to promote the practice.
"UNICEF, in collaboration with Anganwadi workers, Mitanins and NGOs, has achieved reduction in IMR and MMR. There is greater awareness amongst people in rural areas about the benefits of breastfeeding and its positive impact on nutritional status of infants. Achieving reductions in IMR and MMR are difficult tasks, but UNICEF has shown the way and demonstrated that this can be achieved. Child survival is closely linked with development processes" said Ms Usendi.
Emphasising the importance of exclusively breastfeeding, Mr S K Behar, Secretary, DWCD said "To have a strong house, you need a strong foundation. Likewise, exclusive breastfeeding is essential for ensuring the a healthy future for every child."
Villagers engage in discussions on the benefits of breastfeeding
Ms Shaheen Nilofer, UNICEF State Representative, Chhattisgarh, highlighted the need for creating an enabling environment for breastfeeding, especially for working women.
On a trail of the nukkad natak, one was drawn to the village square by the sound of drums beating to the tune of folk songs. Braving the scorching sun, crowds had gathered to see performancees that provide entertainment in their otherwise uneventful lives. Entwined in their performances were messages urging young mothers to ensure good health and nutrition for their infants through the cheapest and esiest means accessible - breastfeeding.
Colourful vans that were parked at vantage points in villages also drew crowds and young, enthusiastic anchors were seen conversing with women and the odd man drawn by curiosity, discussing the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. They listened intently, heads nodding. Hopefully, IMR will continue to fall.