Fighting malnutrition with education

It’s not only Canadian volunteers whose hard work and determination help to combat hunger through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Men and women who volunteer in their own communities around the world are another key part of the effort. Their contributions often go unsung.

Modina Begum, who lives in the remote village of Dhakhinail, Bangladesh, is one such volunteer.

Poverty rates are high in Dhakhinail and about 60 percent of the people living there cannot read or write.

Only about 43 percent have any access to latrine facilities.

Modina married her husband, Abdul, when she was 17. They have three children between the ages of four months and 11 years.

Abdul is a farmer, but isn’t able to produce enough to provide for all his family’s needs, so he also drives a motorbike taxi for additional income.

Modina spends most of her time caring for her family. She also does tailoring to help support the family.

It’s a busy life and no one would blame Modina if she chose to put all her energy toward simply working to get by.

But that’s not Modina’s way.

As a mother herself, the lack of knowledge about proper nutrition concerned her.

When Modina learned about an opportunity to be trained as a community health volunteer through PARI, the local Bangladeshi partner of foodgrains bank member World Renew, she signed up.

“I had no idea about feeding nutritious foods to pregnant mothers and children under two. I never thought that I could be of any help to my community,” she says.

“Now I learned these things and am helping my community people.”

In her role as a community health volunteer, Modina teaches pregnant and nursing women and mothers of young children about the importance of nutritious foods. She encourages them to go for pregnancy checkups and take iron and calcium tablets and informs them of dangerous symptoms to watch for.

She encourages mothers to ex-clusively breastfeed their babies for six months, and she makes sure babies are growing at a healthy pace. When they’re not, she en-courages mothers to take their babies to a health centre.

“Volunteers like Modina play an incredibly important role in spreading nutritional information in hard-to-reach communities,” says Barbara Macdonald, who directs international programs at the foodgrains bank.

“She understands intimately the traditional beliefs and customs surrounding childbirth and childrearing in her community and is able to explain to her fellow mothers which beliefs are untrue and may be harmful,” she adds.

According to World Renew Bangladesh team members, it’s common for mothers to feed their babies sugar water along with breast milk.

Many believe it gives the baby a sweeter personality. As well, many pregnant mothers try not to eat too much because they believe it will make the baby grow too big and lead to a difficult delivery. And although eggs are a relatively inexpensive protein source, local superstition is that mothers who eat them will cause their baby to have a bald head.

“Modina isn’t an outsider coming in to teach women about how to better care for their children,” says Macdonald.

“She’s someone who intuitively understands what the women she’s meeting with are facing because she’s a mother in that same community, living those same challenges herself every day.”

Modina is one of 442 community health volunteers who have been trained by PARI and World Renew through the project. The project totals $542,000, and is benefitting 24,000 women and 21,000 children over three years.

The information the volunteers are spreading is critical.

“Bangladesh is home to some of the most undernourished women and children in the world,” says Macdonald, citing records from the 2016 State of the World’s Children report by UNICEF.

Amanda Thorsteinsson is communications co-ordinator with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

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