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New project targets early childhood development in Chin State

A pregnant woman from Burma waits with her husband at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand. A new programme aims to increase awareness of the nutritional needs of mothers and their children during the earliest stages of development. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Well-known actress and model Thet Mon Myint joined forces with Save the Children on Thursday to help launch an awareness campaign about the link between nutrition and child development.

Thet Mon Myint, who is expecting her second child, will post monthly updates on Save the Children’s Facebook page to share her experience and lessons about nutrition and how to tackle any causes that may contribute to stunting — a serious problem among the poor in her native Chin State.

“Many mothers in Myanmar [Burma] don’t have the same access to this kind of information, and that’s why I want to open my life up like this and share some of the knowledge that I’m learning about healthy practices in the first 1000 days [of a child’s life],” she said at a press conference on Thursday.

But in the background of the conference, a state-wide nutrition programme is being prepared for rollout in January next year.

A cash-transfer programme that aims to help women in their first six months of gestation meet their nutritional needs and those of their children will be launched in Chin State at the start of next year.

The Maternal and Child Cash Transfers (MCCT) programme will be supported by the multi-donor Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), which committed US$14.5 million in funding on 30 June. Save the Children is currently implementing the programme in villages in Arakan State, Irrawaddy Division and the Dry Zone.

‘Condemned to disadvantage’

“Of all the issues impacting children in Myanmar, we believe that the reduction of stunting is one of the most important for us to help address,” said Katy Webley, Save the Children’s director for  programme development, quality and advocacy. “It is simply not acceptable that children are condemned to disadvantage for the rest of their lives due to poor practices in the first 1,000 days.”

Speaking to DVB after the conference, Webley added that “the desire for this to happen came from the highest level — it was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself who said she wanted a development programme in Chin State to deal with the issue of nutrition and it was particularly focused on mothers and newborns.”

The Department of Social Welfare, which has already had several missions to Chin State to plan for the project, will lead the programme.

“It’s a perfect example of how when it comes from the top, it can happen amazingly quickly — inter-ministerial collaboration and partner support can swing into action,” said Webley.

Jennifer Caskin, a consultant for the MCCT programme, says that “mothers receive cash through village health committees in co-operation with midwifes. Midwifes throughout the program then give counselling about breastfeeding and appropriate complementary feeding.”

The first thousand days from the time a mother becomes pregnant until her child’s second birthday is known as the “window of opportunity”, said Caskin. They hope to disseminate the information to all mothers that immediate and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s development is key for a child to grow mentally and physically.

Previously it had been found that some mothers in Burma give water or other foods within the first six months of a child’s life as they believe that breast milk doesn’t provide enough nutrients. “The exclusive breastfeeding rate in Myanmar is still very low as many mothers believe they need more than breast milk. For example some might think it is beneficial to give a child rice or other supplements, even though we know that is dangerous,” said Caskin.

“In other cases, due to the hot climate, mothers think that babies need water [in the first six months],” added Caskin. “So we are also trying to reach those key influencers like grandmothers and mothers-in-law, because they are the sources of information in the community.”

Challenges in Chin State

Under the current MCCT projects, Save the Children is distributing information through various partners such as the government, health workers and midwifes and investigating which is the most effective means of sharing information.

Although there are many challenges with delivering this project to the new area of Chin State — such as its rugged terrain, distance and dispersed population — Webley says she’s excited to see the project in action.

Chin and Arakan states have the highest rate of stunting, at 58 percent and 50 percent, respectively, according to the Myanmar Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2009-2010. However, some of the trends are also highest in Rangoon.

“[What] strikes me the most is in Yangon [Rangoon], maybe because you don’t expect it, but because it is a rapidly modernising city, you have pockets where there are slums without any land tenure and borrowing from lenders to buy their food,” said Webley.

“In rural areas they are likely to have access to poultry, small livestock or vegetables, whereas in urban areas, it’s a cash economy, so you can even see people eating those three-in-one [instant coffee] packets dry and kids are given coffee powder.”