One-year-old Moreen bounced gleefully on her mother’s lap as she absorbed her surroundings with alert eyes. She stopped and screamed excitedly as she fixed her gaze upon a passing brown dog with a wagging tail. After a few seconds, her curiosity satisfied, Moreen resumed her happy bouncing.
“I've been breastfeeding Moreen since the day she was born,” Moreen’s mom, Gilda, 25, said as she held on to Moreen who has quietly sat herself down on Gilda’s lap.
“When she turned six months, I started giving her bananas, sweet potatoes, and vegetables from our garden and the martket. But I continue to feed her with my breast milk,” Gilda added.
Gilda, who is three months pregnant with her second child, is grateful that Moreen is healthy and has never had any major illness.Gilda said that her mother, who works as a village health volunteer, often advises her on what to do to care for Moreen.
Village health volunteers are the health system's front line workers as they provide appropriate and timely health information, advice, and referral to pregnant mothers and their families through regular home visits.
Gilda recently had a visit from Linsay Pokambut, a World Vision staff who encouraged her to continue breast feeding and continue introducing her baby to healthy solid foods.
“But sometimes, I worry a lot about not having enough money and food for our growing family,” she said. Gilda said that her husband does part-time construction work while she tends to their garden to help with their basic needs.
"With other family members living with us, we need to work harder to feed everyone," Gilda shared.
Based on the Household Income and Expenditure Survey, almost 40 percent of the population in Papua New Guinea live below the poverty line, exposing low income families, especially infants and children to the threat of chronic malnutrition. This is exacerbated by people's poor access to health services, including correct information on caring for pregnant mothers and children.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund, malnutrition is the underlying cause for the majority of deaths of children under the age of five in Papua New Guinea. One child in 13 dies before reaching the age of five. National statistics show that close to half the children of PNG are stunted (45 per cent), 24 per cent are under weight and 14 per cent are suffering from moderate and severe forms of wasting which is a potentially life-threatening condition for young children.
This means that babies like Moreen may not stay healthy for long as parents and caregivers struggle, and often falter, in providing for the basic health needs of their families.
To help reduce the prevalence of chronic malnutrition among children under two years of age, World Vision, with support from the Australian Government and the Government of Papua New Guinea, started implementing the Caring for Nutrition Project in January 2018. The project builds on the work of village health volunteers in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and Port Moresby by helping parents and caregivers adopt correct feeding and caregiving practices for children, including pregnant mothers. This includes water, sanitation and hygiene education sessions delivered to communities and schools.
World Vision and village health volunteers will be engaging the men in the communities to provide better support for their wives as they undergo the delicate process of pregnancy.
The above initiative is complemented by the PNG Productive Partnerships in Agriculture (now in its third year of implementation) supported by the World Bank and the Cocoa Board of Papua New Guinea which is working to improve the livelihoods of cocoa farmers in selected communities in Bougainville, as well as Madang and East Sepik. The main aim is to improve people's access to financial resources that they could use for their children's health and education needs.
"Our health project has just started and I expect significant changes in the knowledge and behaviours of parents and caregivers here as we are doing regular household visits together with the village health volunteers," Linsay Pokambut, World Vision water and sanitation officer said.
"I am happy for this opportunity to be able to come home to my community and contribute to improving the health of mothers and children here, " Linsay said. Linsay originally hails from the community where Gilda and Moreen reside but migrated to Port Moresby after graduating from college.
Despite the day to day struggle of feeding the family, Gilda considers herself lucky to have found a husband who loves her and who has no qualms about accompanying her to the clinic for her prenatal check-ups. She is also happy that her husband has not taken on drinking alcohol, unlike most men in her community.
"I remain hopeful for the future," Gilda smiled. "I wish for Moreen to be able to go to school and become a doctor someday and my second-born to be a teacher someday," she shared.
"It would really be nice if I could go back to school too," the young mother smiled shyly. "I have wanted to be a teacher someday and I hope I could still be one when I get the chance to finish my schooling."