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Encouraging signs for breastfeeding campaigners in Sierra Leone

  |   SUN Civil Society Network, SUN Country Network

Adapted from: “Pujehun: Encouraging signs for breastfeeding campaigners,” by FOCUS 1000, SUN Pooled Fund 2nd Interim Report – Annexes, Place of Publication: Grant report.  Adapted with permission.

It’s Friday and it’s “Antenatal Day” at the Potoru Health Center.

On this day pregnant women and lactating mothers from across the town and neighbouring communities throng the centre for a checkup. Among the crowd of young mothers waiting to be attended to is Esther Fatorma, whose baby, visibly happy, is playing on her lap.

An important feature of “Antenatal Day” in this centre is the weekly health talk session. Nurses take time to educate pregnant women and lactating mothers on best practices for a smooth pregnancy experience and healthy growth of their babies. Exclusive breastfeeding often features prominently, because it is at the centre of Sierra Leone’s fight against malnutrition.

Thanks to a sustained campaign by community-based organizations, the tide is gradually changing as more and more women now know enough to provide a good start in life for their babies. Esther’s baby is one of the success stories of this campaign.

According to the mother, from the very first day of the baby’s birth, up to six months, she made sure to only give her breastmilk.

“Through the sensitization medical staff and Kombra Network members are giving us, I have realized that there are several health benefits in giving breastmilk exclusively to babies for the first six months of their lives,” she says.

Pujehun ranks among the districts with the highest rates of malnutrition in Sierra Leone with 38% of children under age 5 stunted, 9.7% wasted and 23.8% are underweight. This is above the national average of 30%, 5% and 14% for stunting, wasting and underweight respectively. Health authorities and campaigners say lack of awareness is a key factor. But as Esther’s story reveals, the campaign by the Kombra Network is changing this trend.

(c) UNICEF/Sam Phelps

The religious arm of the network has been instrumental in efforts to raise awareness. Reverend Francis Tucker, District head of the Christian Action Group (CHRISTAG), one of the two arms of the religious wing of the network, has been personally involved in the grassroots engagement. He says they discovered that faced with the barrage of myths and misconceptions, people lacked the relevant information about breastfeeding.

“So we targeted the health centres and had dialogue with the healthcare workers,” Rev. Tucker says. “Clearly, this has paid off.”

Besides outreach at the communities, Pastors and Imams engage their congregations regularly on the subject. And through this campaign, men have been deliberately targeted and encouraged to participate in the upbringing of their babies. This way, more women now receive support, which enables them to produce enough breastmilk to feed their babies.

“We now know the correlation between eating and breastfeeding,” says Esther, one person who has had the support of her husband.

Florence Lahai, a midwife at the Sahn Malen Hospital in Malen Chiefdom, says this is a familiar trend across the district, for which she credits increasing community awareness, especially by the Kombra Network.


Want to learn more?

● Read more about the Kombra Network and its objectives, then check out their Facebook page for the latest news and activities.  Curious about the term?  The word “Kombra” refers to a loving caregiver and is often used synonymously as a term for a mother.

● Did you know that FOCUS 1000 established up the Kombra Network?  FOCUS 1000 is a SUN Pooled Fund grant recipient and an important partner in the fight to end malnutrition in all forms.  Join them online!

The Civil Society Alliance of Sierra Leone, as well as their Multi-sectorial Platform partners, are working tirelessly to support mothers like Esther.  In addition to educational activities such as this, FOCUS 1000 engaged members of parliament to raise awareness on the health risks of unregulated breastmilk substitutes.  Thanks to civil society advocacy, as well as parliamentary Nutrition Champions, Sierra Leone now has national draft legislation on the Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

Watch it firsthand

“The first 1000 days of life is the foundation of life.  If you miss that period, you miss the entire period for human capital development.“  – Mohamed Bailor Jalloh, CEO, FOCUS 1000

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