Religious gurus join hands with officials to check malnutrition

After facing various hurdles in fighting malnutrition and implementation of World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, officials in Tong district of Rajasthan have roped in local religious leaders to make the programme a success - albeit it comes with some riders.

The Union Government focussed on Tonk as part of its effort to treat widespread malnutrition in Rajasthan. At the start of 11th five-year plan in 2007, 44 per cent of children in the state were malnourished and Rs 3,400 crore was allocated in the Budget to bring it down to 25 per cent. However, in 2012, malnutrition rate has remained the same. Activists and officials say the picture in Tonk is not different where 2,224 are moderately and 229 are severely malnourished.

While WHO guidelines clearly state that breastfeeding within the first hour of a child’s birth and exclusive breastfeeding for the next six months can reduce malnutrition substantially, traditions and cultural practices have posed a big hindrance. The district authorities, however, realised that working with religious leaders will help in implementation of the guidelines.

“In our tradition, an elder member of the family reads out “azan” in child’s ear and only then feeding starts. It usually takes three to four hours after child’s birth as people will be at work in the fields,” said Hafiz Abdul Aziz, Imam of Masjid Agam Shah.

Sometimes the ceremony is delayed by many days if the elder is travelling to some other village and the newborn is given ghutti (gripe water), in complete violation of WHO norms.

“The first azan is important. We believe that the one who reads it, inspires the child later in life,” said a resident of Tonk.

Aziz said: “It took us one year to understand the importance of the campaign before we started spreading awareness among people.”

Maulana Amar Saeed, who goes to homes for tutoring besides teaching in a Madrasa, said people listen to Maulvis and Imams whose intervention has helped in changing the scenario. “Women remain behind veils. Being a religious leader, I have access to them.
When I go to their homes to teach children, I tell them about WHO guidelines. We also propagate the idea in religious gatherings,” said Saeed.

As a result, things have changed in the last two years. Now any respected man of the society, mostly religious leaders, can read “azan” to the new borns. Family members feed the child in the first one hour.

“Koran only says that azan should be read out before feeding the child. Who does it is a matter of culture and tradition. We are not going against any religious norm,” Aziz explained.

The collective efforts have also increased institutional deliveries. Today, pregnant mothers know that giving birth in a hospital can save their lives.

However, exclusive breast feed for the first six months remains a big challenge. “Feeding honey and paste of cereals, soup of lentils etc is an intrinsic part of culture. It will take time to go away,” said Saeed.

Jasvinder Kaur, project coordinator, Save the Children, said they had to change the strategies over the years to make the programme work. Involving the local community leaders has greatly helped, Kaur added.

Setting up anganwadis

The District Wakfs Committee wrote to the district administration in March 2012 explaining the sorry state of anganwadis.

The major problem was finding a proper place. The officials have failed to find a land for even one of the 96 anganwadis in urban Tonk which are run in rented houses. This not only limits development of a full-fledged centre, but also the residents in need find it tough to locate them. “We have got funds for building 10 anganwadis. Lands have been located for four of them. But the rest needs to be done,” said Shagufta, a local official of Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).

This is last of the five articles on child malnutrition, a result of fellowship by Save the Children and Deccan Herald. To know more, click: www.savethechildren.in

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