Changing minds, Changing behaviors – Beliefs and practices of tribal women about breastfeeding

The village of Vijayanagar (Patparpali panchayat, Chura block, District Gariyaband) lying near the border of Chattisgarh and Odisha, is inhabited by tribal residents. Rukamani Bai Markam, 28 and her husband, Kaliram Markam, are permanent residents of this village. Rukmini a mother of three, Tankeshwari (9 years), Priti (4 years) and Isa (14 months) gave birth to her first two children at home, and due to prevailing stereotypes they were not fed colostrum (the first milk produced by the mother after giving birth).

Nandakumar, a worker of the Lok Aastha Sewa Sanstha (LASS), came to the village of Vijayanagar and during a home visit at Kaliram’s house, found that his wife Rukmani was pregnant. When he asked Rukmani Bai about her registration at the anganwadi and her diet, she informed him that this was her third pregnancy and the glaring fact that her family followed the practice of not giving her food for 5 days during the time of delivery because they  believed that eating a complete diet would result in complications during the time of delivery as the child would become too big. Her mother-in-law due to her superstitions put restrictions on her diet and didn’t even let her sit in the courtyard of the house. Rukmani Bai was afraid of her mother-in-law and hence chose to stay silent about it. So, Nandakumar repeatedly visited her house to speak to her mother-in-law and after consultations using a flip chart and interactive workshops, her way of thinking was changed. From the pregnancy till the delivery, due to his follow ups and consultations with the family, the mother and child are healthy.

Rukmani’s midwife also changed her way of thinking. As a result of this, for the birth of her third child, Rukmani went to the hospital for delivery and gave birth to a healthy child weighing 2 kilos and 900 grams. Rukmini and her family were also made aware of the importance of colostrum for her baby due to which the baby was  given colostrum which helped strengthen the immune system. After delivery, Rukmani was given nutritious food unlike before as her mother-in-law was routinely informed of the necessity of nutritious food, green vegetables, eggs etc. for a mother post delivery. “Due to your efforts there has been a change in the beliefs of my mother-in-law and now she doesn’t place restrictions on my diet,” says Rukmini.

Though Rukmini and her family’s perception changed, there’s a sizable chunk of the population that’s still reeling under the ignorance  of the importance of colostrum and the practice of exclusive breast feeding for the first six months.

LASS had been working for the last 5 years to bring about a mindset and behavioural change. And are still at it.

There are still some stereotypes and superstitions that exist that LASS is battling to change, like people have the perception that since colostrum is thick, the child will be unable to digest the thick milk and therefore would fall sick.

Besides this the organisation focuses on the following measures to ensure safety and good health of the mother as well as the child:

  • Routine immunization after registration at the Anganwadi
  • Routine weight monitoring and taking care of the child’s hygiene
  • During pregnancy, regular health checkups and immunizations of the mother
  • Encourage mothers to ensure that the child is only fed breast milk till six months of age
  • Given complementary food after six months
  • After delivery the mother is given sufficient food which due to superstitions used to be refused earlier
  • To increase her production of breast milk, the mother is encouraged to have nutritious food provided by the Anganwadi, and also eat green vegetables, milk, fruits, and papaya at home

Around 95 per cent of mothers in the area of intervention of the LASS team are breastfeeding their children.

Rukmini’s child is 14 months old now. Despite being caught up with her household work she never missed feeding her child breast milk till the child was six months old.

A leader of the village, Mr. Birsingh Markam says, “These beliefs and ways have been there from the time of our ancestors and they are not good. Now, we also understand and are bringing change to our lives. You come to the village and discuss with the people on all issues and make us understand, and also give us information of various government social schemes. For that we give you our thanks.”

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