Monday, 7 October 2013

Bridging the gap: nutrition in Indonesia

By Bohdana Szydlik, UNICEF Australia

UNICEF Australia Communication Officer Bohdana Szydlik standing in front of a local rice field.
© UNICEF Indonesia/2013/Szydlik.

Each morning I cross a bridge where a mother and her small child sit. The child sleeps, the mother shakes a container to collect small change, and together they wait for time to pass. Just down the road is a marble-floored shopping mall, with the types of high-end stores you might see on the Champs-Elysées: Gucci, Topshop, Audi.

Since the fall of president Suharto 15 years ago, Indonesia has become one of the largest economies in South East Asia. Yet much of Indonesia's wealth remains in the hands of a privileged few, with 50 per cent of the population still living on less than US $1.75 a day.

Last week I travelled to Klaten district, an hour out of Yogyakarta in Central Java.

It was in the village of Dukuh that I met Nanai, a ‘cadre’ or volunteer community health worker. Nanai plays a vital role in Indonesia’s health system, acting as a counsellor and knowledge base for the women in her community. Each morning she works doing batik, a traditional Indonesian craft using wax to decorate fabric and wood. Each piece takes her a day to make and for it she earns 3500 rupiah – about 35 cents.

A batik piece made by Nanai. She makes and sells pieces like this in the morning, then makes voluntary visits to families in the afternoons. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2013/Szydlik.

After work, Nanai visits mothers in her village. I accompany her as she visits Solina, mother to two-year-old Amita. Nanai sits on the front porch and chats to Solina about her daughter’s health. “What have you been feeding her for dinner?” she asks. We go inside where Solina shows us the tempe and veggies she has cooked for her family. I chat to her mother-in-law about what she fed her children. “Rice with brown sugar,” she laughs as she tells me, understanding now that rice with brown sugar has little nutritional value.

One in three children in Indonesia is stunted, a condition that affects a child’s brain and body when they don’t get the right kind of food or nutrients in their first two years. Stunted children are not just shorter. They are more vulnerable to disease and their brain doesn’t develop as it should, which impacts on their ability to learn.

Cadres weigh the children when they visit, as part of their health assessment and to ensure children have a healthy weight. © UNICEF Indonesia/2013/Szydlik.

Nanai is just one of many inspirational women in communities across Indonesia who are bridging the gap between rich and poor. As Kofi Annan said, “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

UNICEF is supporting training for cadres like Nanai on breastfeeding and infant and young child feeding practices. During the training, cadres are shown how to prepare a range of food using carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and legumes.

Most cadres are volunteers. UNICEF supports a training course for cadres to learn about nutrition and breastfeeding. The cadres then become a key source of health information in their community. © UNICEF Indonesia/2013/Szydlik. 

Nanai attended the training course almost two years ago and has since seen a chance in her village.

 “Many mothers in the community come to me for information. They want to know how to prepare food for their child and when they should first start feeding solid food to their child,” she tells me.

“Mothers used to buy instant porridge from the markets. I tried to counsel mothers to instead use the family food [such as rice, tempe, tofu, vegetables and fruit]. Now even mothers from higher income families buy fresh food for their family and child.”

A UNICEF-produced flip book that is given to cadres to help explain the importance of breastfeeding and healthy eating practices to parents. © UNICEF Indonesia/2013/Szydlik.

By providing mothers with access to knowledge, ranging from breastfeeding advice to how to prepare nutritious food, cadres and women like Nanti are placing power into the hands of mothers, families and communities to fight under-nutrition.