European Union and UNICEF join forces against child malnutrition in the Philippines

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Natural disasters, an overreliance on rice and low levels of breastfeeding have left Filipino children among the most malnourished in the region. Download this video

By Guy Hubbard

POLANGUI, Philippines, 12 May 2014 – Mt. Mayon looms over the rice paddies of Polangui. The active volcano serves as a constant reminder that the fields sit deep in a ring of fire.

The Philippines is bombarded by typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, events that affect the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people every year.

That the country is prone to natural hazards is one reason the Philippines has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the region.

But it is not the only reason.

Pockets of poverty are pockets of undernutrition

An overreliance on rice, low levels of breastfeeding and the recurring natural hazards, connected to and amplified by this poverty, means that children do not eat enough. Twenty-two per cent of children under 5 in the Philippines are underweight. Thirty-two per cent of children in the country are stunted.

Through a nutrition initiative targeting pregnant women and children under 5, UNICEF, the European Union and the Government of the Philippines are starting to make a difference.

A team of peer counsellors is formed

Eilile Onrubia is part of a team of peer counsellors in Napo Barangay, a rural rice-growing village in Polangui, not far from Legazpi. Under the leadership of the barangay chief, Ms. Onrubia and the team formed a nutrition council. The counsellors are charged with going door to door to talk to mothers and pregnant women about proper nutrition for themselves and their families. The main focus of the discussion is breastfeeding. The council meets once a month to share successes and challenges, before the counsellors return to their rounds.

Ms. Onrubia says she decided to join the team when she had her baby girl. “I was invited to attend a seminar about breastfeeding, and then they taught me the right way of breastfeeding,” she explains. “I had struggled with breastfeeding for my first three children, and I realized I had been doing it incorrectly.

“After that, I thought that I could help the other mothers and educate them about breastfeeding, as well.”

Peer counsellors talk nutrition

Most women here work long days in the rice paddies. With precious little time to breastfeed their children, they say, they prefer to rely on formula. Those who do breastfeed – often the poorest mothers, who cannot afford formula – may do it incorrectly, and may stop a month or two after their babies are born.

This area has traditionally had some of the highest malnutrition rates of children under 5 in the Philippines. But, here in Napo Barangay, things are changing.

In 2009, the Philippines was classified as a middle income country. Nevertheless, there are high levels of poverty, particularly in rural areas.

Ms. Onrubia and the other counsellors encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. And, as the babies grow older, the counselling sessions continue.

Maria Antonette Sarte has four children. She struggled to breastfeed the first three, opting instead to feed them formula. “I just felt that it was uncomfortable,” she says, “because you can’t move around freely and you always have to carry the child with you.”

Then she met Ms. Onrubia.

She decided to breastfeed her fourth child. She’s noticed a difference.

“[T]he counsellors told me the benefits of breastfeeding, and I’m thankful because the child that was breastfed has been much healthier than my older children.”

Abundant gardens mean healthier families

A healthy start in life is supported by an emphasis on continuing good nutrition. Ms. Onrubia and the other counsellors work with the mothers on how to feed their children complementary foods such as root crops and vegetables.

And to ensure a ready supply of fruit and vegetables, the barangay has established a community garden, under the guidance of the barangay chief. The harvest helps to supplement the nutritional needs of poor families.

“[W]e were also given seeds to plant in our backyard so that, even if we don’t have money to buy food, we have grown vegetables that are nutritional,” says Ms. Onrubia. “The communal garden is our source of food, and we can either eat or sell the vegetables and share the money. So we can actually make money from our crops.”

Evening settles over the barangay, and Ms. Onrubia returns home. She sets about preparing dinner for her own family. Dinner is a nutritious mix of fish, vegetables and rice. The children are growing up healthy and strong.

And, with the help of Ms. Onrubia and her team, so are the neighbours’ children.

Learn more about humanitarian needs in the Philippines:

Explore UNICEF Philippines on the Web.

Visit UNICEF Philippines Facebook.

Follow @unicefphils Twitter.