Since violence escalated across Myanmar’s northern townships of Rakhine State in August last year and access to health and nutrition services dropped drastically, community volunteers have become a critical safeguard against the risk of malnutrition among children.
With years of experience working for international non-government organisations under her belt, community-minded Ma Tin Tin Mya is one of these vital volunteers. Armed with knowledge and enthusiasm, the 45-year old runs lively community nutrition sessions in her village, located in Buthidaung Township.
For every monthly session, she assembles the pregnant and lactating mothers of her village. Sitting together in a circle, Ma Tin Tin Mya encourages wide-ranging discussions, answering questions women have linked to breastfeeding, child feeding, hygiene as well as their own health. Using colourful flip charts, she also shares information on locally available nutritious foods, alongside useful tips for mums to keep a diverse diet for themselves and their children.
“These awareness sessions are very beneficial for the children and all members of the community,” says Ma Tin Tin Mya, confident that many of the mothers who attend go home and put what they learn into practice.
The gatherings are also safe spaces. Here the women can exchange ideas, share experiences, and offer plus receive support. “Particularly for pregnant and lactating mothers, hearing how others are coping with breastfeeding and introducing complementary foods into their babies’ diets can change their entire experience,” explains UNICEF’s Nutrition Specialist, Anne Laevens. “It can prevent them from giving up exclusive breastfeeding and even improve their child’s as well as their own eating habits, which is crucial to keeping babies healthy.”
A Recipe for Health
Ma Tin Tin Mya also organizes cooking demonstrations at the community centre. She showcases simple but nutritious recipes that women can experiment with and replicate using locally available vegetables, such as green peppers. “Everyone in the community loves green peppers,” says Ma Tin Tin Mya, clarifying that they were part of the food parcels recently delivered by the Red Cross.
“Thanks to the food assistance we have started to get, and the few vegetables we can grow here now, we can teach mothers how to cook a variety of nourishing dishes and help prevent malnutrition and other illnesses amongst children.”
One of Myanmar’s poorest States, malnutrition across Rakhine was high even before the latest outbreak of violence, with rates of global acute malnutrition in the north of the State above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergency threshold of 15%.
With clinics in the area now not fully functioning for almost six months, and with very few aid organisations able to operate in the violence-stricken townships, experts believe that malnutrition may rise, making the work of volunteers like Ma Tin Tin Mya more critical than ever before.
“Malnutrition can have a lifelong impact on children, not only compromising their physical and cognitive development, but also weakening their immune system and long term life development,” says Laevens.
A Network of Vital Volunteers
Volunteers like Ma Tin Tin Mya are the backbone of a community nutrition programme run by the Myanmar Heart Development Association (MHDO), one of the few local organizations able to work in the area since August.
The UNICEF supported programme aims to prevent, detect and refer cases of malnutrition across the two northern townships of Rakhine State, through multiple interventions in nutrition, health, water and sanitation and community mobilisation.
In Ma Tin Tin Mya’s village there are four other volunteers. Supervised by MHDO, they also assist with measuring, weighing and recording information to help diagnose cases of malnutrition among children.
While their interventions are vital and sometimes life-saving, information and community services, such as those provided by Ma Tin Tin Mya and her colleagues, alone are insufficient to address malnutrition. Access to a health facility is essential but something that remains a far off hope for Ma Tin Tin Mya and her fellow volunteers.
“I wish we had a reliable clinic nearby to refer the children and pregnant women as well as more nutrition interventions,” Ma Tin Tin Mya says. “At the moment mothers are mostly taking care of the children with mild malnutrition at home without the necessary close guidance from health professionals.”
As they hope for change, Ma Tin Tin Mya and her volunteer colleagues continue to work hard to share valuable information about health and nutrition so that as many children as possible in their area can get the best start in life.