Monday, 7 July 2014

Muslim leaders at forefront of social change to reduce stunting

 by Iwan Hasan

Kyai Subhan at the pesantren in Brebes, Central Java
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Iwan

BREBES, Indonesia, April 2014 - Subhan Makmun, known as Kyai Subhan, looks like a typical traditional Islamic scholar or ulama. He lives among thousands of his students in an Islamic boarding school in Brebes, Central Java. He wears a traditional sarong and a black Malay cap.  

But looks can be deceiving. Subhan’s view on Islamic Syariah is very progressive. “Islam is not narrow but broad,” he says.

Kyai Subhan is one of the most revered ulamas in Central Java thanks to his vast knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence. But classical Islamic books are not the only books he reads. He says he’s read “Facts for Life”, a book on child care published by UNICEF in association with several other UN agencies.

The book contains information on topics like safe motherhood, and breastfeeding and is written in simple language to be easily understood by parents, young people, and teachers. Kyai Subhan says he often refers to it when preaching on health and nutrition.
“Every suckling by an infant of his or her mother’s breast dissolves the mother’s sin for one day.” “Her child should be at least thirty months old before a mother can be pregnant again with the next child.” Kyai Subhan uses these Hadiths in his sermons to promote good nutrition and health.

Better Nutrition
Kyai Subhan is the leading figure among hundreds of religious leaders who are promoting good nutrition and health practices in Brebes, the largest and most populated district in Central Java with a high stunting rate.
More than 35 per cent of children under the age of five are stunted in Indonesia – they suffer from a reduced growth rate because of malnutrition. The effects of stunting are lifelong and irreversible. Stunted children are more likely to be less healthy, and have reduced cognitive skills as adults.

For the last two years UNICEF and its government counterparts have been piloting a nutrition-focused conditional cash transfer project to reduce stunting in Brebes.
In the pilot, UNICEF has partnered with Nahdatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia with 40 million followers, to train more than 150 local religious leaders on nutrition and health. In turn, they spread nutrition and health messages to the community.

Village Imam Dunarso ©UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Iwan Hasan

Kyai Subhan’s example is followed by fellow religious leaders like Dunarso. He is a village Imam who leads various religious rituals such as the baby shower and aqiqah, a ritual a week after a baby is born.  “In the baby shower, I usually remind the mother to give the baby colostrum. It is the first immunization to protect the new born against diseases,” he says.  

“In aqiqah, I ask the parents to only feed their new born with breast milk for the first six months, and nothing else. I ask them not to give formula milk. Breast milk is the most complete nutrition that contains protein, lactose and antibodies,” he says.
Dunarso’s new knowledge has been welcomed by his community. “I and the other mothers in Siandong village didn’t expect him to be able to talk about things such as stunting and exclusive breastfeeding. We’re really happy to learn about these things,” says Endang, one of the village women who attends weekly Quran classes facilitated by Dunarso.
Almost 90 per cent of Indonesia's population of 250 million are Muslims, making it the biggest Muslim country in the world. UNICEF's work with religious leaders and faith-based organisations is a key component in the strategy to reduce stunting since not only mothers but also fathers, the extended family and the community are involved in deciding on nutrition practices.
UNICEF's partnership with NU is a good example of how positive behavior and social norms can be developed and sustained.