On a Mission to Help Mothers Prevent Malnutrition in Somalia: "I Never Give Up"

Report
from Action Against Hunger USA
Published on 12 Sep 2017 View Original

Meet Muriya, Traditional Birth Attendant and Breastfeeding Advocate

Right now, parts of Somalia are experiencing what experts have classified as a “near famine.” A widespread, severe hunger emergency, caused by consecutive seasons of severe drought and ongoing conflict, has taken hold. Today, 3 million people—one quarter of Somalia’s population—are experiencing acute food shortages at crisis or emergency levels, and 363,000 children are suffering from malnutrition.

Action Against Hunger is responding to the crisis. Our teams are delivering emergency food assistance, as well as clean water and sanitation, to families in urgent need and providing lifesaving treatment for severely malnourished children. We’re also partnering with mothers—many of whom have been displaced from their communities because of the drought—to improve the nutrition and health of their young children.

A large part of Action Against Hunger’s work in Somalia involves our Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) program, supported by UK Aid. The program teaches and reinforces global public health recommendations for breastfeeding, which strongly recommend that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development, and health. After that, to meet a child’s evolving nutritional needs, infants should receive safe and nutritionally adequate complementary foods while breastfeeding continues until their second birthday.

Supporting learning, confidence, and health

To spread the message about breastfeeding far and wide, Action Against Hunger’s health and nutrition teams created mother-to-mother support groups in communities around Somalia’s El Barde District. These peer support groups offer mothers breastfeeding support and serve as safe spaces for women to share and discuss their challenges, feelings, and experiences.

Each mother in the support group is informed about the importance of breastfeeding, with a special emphasis on encouraging them to breastfeed their infants exclusively for the first six months, which benefits the health of mothers and significantly reduces the risk of death among infants from the two leading causes: diarrhea and pneumonia. The mother-to-mother groups also engage in discussion and learning sessions about health and nutrition, facilitated by Action Against Hunger’s staff.

Muriya Izak Hussein, 40 years old, is a mother and a traditional birth attendant in Mogadishu, Somalia. Living in Tabelaha, a settlement for displaced Somalis on the outskirts of the city, she has also been advocating among mothers for Action Against Hunger to promote infant and young child feeding since February.

As a traditional birth attendant, Muriya is an indispensable resource of information for new mothers, especially those who cannot make it to the nearest health facility. With no health facilities in Tabelaha providing delivery services, she took it upon herself to help mothers in need to deliver their babies, based on her knowledge and experience, and with minimal resources.

Action Against Hunger trained Muriya to coach mothers on healthy care and feeding practices for infants and young children, and to encourage exclusive breastfeeding among pregnant women and new mothers in her community. Muriya’s road to becoming an advocate was not an easy one: “At the beginning, I did not know much about the program,” she recalls now. “I would tell the supervisor, ‘I have plenty of other things other things I need to do. Don’t waste my time!’”

From student to leader

After four months of participating in the mother-to-mother support group counseling sessions, Muriya became more confident about her understanding and knowledge. She became a leader of one of the mother-to-mother support groups, and received additional training from Action Against Hunger, which empowered Muriya to become an advocate for child nutrition within her community.

After they receive their training, Muriya and other support group leaders—working under the guidance of Action Against Hunger’s health and nutrition team—educate women in their communities about breastfeeding, and share recipes and information for how to prepare nutritious food. They also often inspire the creation of new mother-to-mother support groups to spread best practices.

“I am able to improve the knowledge of the mothers who have not had the opportunity to participate in the support group and benefit from the trainings and lectures as I have,” says Muriya.

Muriya’s position as a traditional birth attendant makes her an important resource for mothers and caregivers with young children in her community. In the past year, she successfully delivered 58 babies. Thirty of those deliveries took place after she received training from Action Against Hunger on infant and young child feeding and the importance of breastfeeding.

“{This knowledge of the importance of breastfeeding] has prevented or reduced malnutrition among the babies,” says Muriya. “I also encourage mothers to seek care in case they have trouble breastfeeding,” she says. Muriya shares that cultural barriers and harmful local practices such as feeding babies a water and sugar mixture during their first three days are the most common challenges she faces in improving nutrition for infants and young children in her community.

Cultivating relationships to overcome challenges

“It is a common practice for mothers to give their babies water and sugar when they cry,” says Muriya. “It is difficult because the mothers tell me, ‘You are saying something different than what our elders know.’”

Every day, Muriya conducts group and individual counseling sessions with the mothers in the camp for internally displaced people outside Mogadishu. While there, the women prepare tea and popcorn to create a safe and familiar space to listen to each other’s problems and share advice. Muriya encourages debate in these sessions because she believes that helps the members learn and grow.

“I never give up. I come back to the mothers even after they argue so we can discuss. If the challenges are too big, I work with Action Against Hunger’s IYCF supervisor, Hawa Mohamed Nur, to overcome their resistance or other barriers,” says Muriya.

In response to the immense needs of her community, Muriya formed a group specifically to advocate and promote stronger connections between community elders, support group advocates, and mothers. “I wanted to connect all the advocates and have better communication between all of us,” she says. “It has helped us greatly.”

By increasing the scale and influence of the mother-to mother support groups, Action Against Hunger is helping mothers not only to protect their children from malnutrition, but also to improve their health and build resilience to hunger in the future.

Action Against Hunger has been present in Somalia since 1992. We have active programs in Puntland and in the capital of Mogadishu, as well as in South Central Somalia, specifically the regions of Bakool, Nugaal, Benadir and Lower Shabelle. In 2016, we helped over 283,729 people across Somalia.