Through decades of neglect, the health system in Myanmar ranks among the worst in the world and the ethnic areas are particularly neglected. It will take many years for proper, functioning health systems and infrastructure to be developed and in the meantime community-led health initiatives are essential for minimizing the impact.
A team from RIJ recently visited Thailand and met some of the community workers who coordinate the distribution of kits inside Karen state Myanmar. We heard how the program continues to strengthen the capacity of community managers at district and township level. They have increased nutrition education and women's health education activities in their communities.
One mother’s story highlights the neglect. “My family are all famers. While I lived in my home village, I had 2 children. In my home village there was no clinic, no health materials delivered from humanitarian organizations, and no way to get knowledge of health education. There was also no clinic to go to nearby or medications available to take for mother or baby. If something is wrong with our health or if we need to get treatment, we must go to another village that is two-days walk away.”
The situation in her home village was getting worse so when she fell pregnant with her third child she moved nearer to a displaced camp and was able to receive a baby kit.
“I had never used some of the hygiene materials in there, nor had I ever heard some of those health messages. When my first two babies were born, I used pieces of my husband’s old sarong, and some other old clothes, to wrap up my babies. They were not really clean. I felt so excited to get this kind of material and information help for myself and for my baby. Even though our life is difficult, it is very heartening to receive a helping hand like this. It made me so happy. Even if someone might think it is a small amount, anyway I’m very grateful.”
On World Refugee Day 2019 the global call is to Step up with Refugees. With your support RIJ continues to do this and the Baby Kit project reaches out to more people than the new mothers who receive the kits. The project provides opportunities for community health workers as well.
With displacement continuing in Karen State, Myanmar it can be difficult for community workers to access displaced communities and ascertain their needs. Bringing the Baby kits develops trust between the health workers and the local population thus enabling them to see the conditions within the makeshift camps and learn the needs of the people.
One community leader said: "Because we are able to distribute Baby Kits our community and mothers and babies benefit while they are in difficult circumstances. Even if some mothers only received a few items, the whole family feels better. We hope this project will continue and expand."
Infant mortality rates have already dropped in Ee Htu Hta displacement camp so this shows that the rates elsewhere can also be reduced. The ripple effect will ensure this because the women who received the kits and the health instructions will often pass this knowledge on to other mothers, many of whom would not have access to this information otherwise. So far entire communities across 7 districts in the Karen State have been reached with over 3,500 people receiving the vital health and hygiene training as well as the material support that can ensure the physical wellbeing of future generations.
One mother said: "I am very happy that I joined the awareness raising session and I feel like I can share this information with other women so that it will help other babies. There are still stereotypes in our community, which will need constant health awareness raising to reduce this kinds of wrong thinking."
January 2019 marked the 70th year of conflict between the Burmese army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). A dispute that has affected thousands of innocent villagers. The conflict has severe repercussions on daily life preventing people from farming and pursuing education. A beneficiary in this Health project said: “Every two or three months the Burmese army attacked our village, we had to run and hide in the forest, the Burmese army burnt our village and school, when they left, we came back and rebuilt our houses and school again.”
The Baby Kit and Health Care program continues to bring comfort and much-needed support to families as people struggle to maintain some normality.
Karen mothers in displaced communities have faced difficulty in raising their children safely as the items in the kits are not widely available to them. In addition, the information given in the health message allows for expectant mothers to properly prepare them to care for their babies.
Old traditions and lack of health education have held women back in raising their babies in the best manner possible. Over the years the project has allowed more than 2000 women and their babies to have a better future. Another beneficiary said “This is the first time I can clean my baby with soap, and I can see she is happy and healthy. I hope the project will continue to help other mothers and babies.”
Your donations are key to continue providing comfort and hope for so many.
While displacement continues within Karen State, Myanmar, it undermines the importance of providing support to new mothers giving birth in remote areas where they live in fear and insecurity. One beneficiary said “My village is very remote in the mountains and we must be careful and hide from the soldiers who march around our areas and will hurt us villagers. We do not have a lot of different things for sale in our village.”
The health message in the kit provided in this project gives valuable information for the mother, information that is new to them. In one community they commented that they were really happy with the training sessions that back up the health message. They hadn’t previously understood which foods are good for pregnancy. Some women still believed in old traditions such as avoiding eggs or bananas when you are pregnant.
They also never knew that the first milk is good for the newborn babies and, according to tradition, they would throw away the first milk.
In addition to these essential health facts, items in the kit bring great comfort to the women. One 37-year-old mother who received the kit said: "Before this I didn't know that babies could be wrapped with a white soft cloth. Usually we wrap our babies in pieces of old sarongs or old clothes. I was very surprised to receive cloth like this for my baby. Since I have been using this white cloth, and the soap I received in the baby kit, I notice that my baby's skin is clearer and she seems healthier than other babies I have had."
A comment from another mother sums up in simple terms how worthwhile our support is: "Thank you for your help to me and my children. You don't know me, and you live far away from my village, but anyway you are willing to help me. You must be very kind and thoughtful. If I could meet you I would express my deep gratitude to you. "
Despite the ceasefire agreements in Karen State, the violence continues. In March this year, more than 2,500 people were displaced in Mu Thaw District, Karen State. At the start of the year, the construction of a military road through local villages and farmland in the area caused damage to local property and farmland and led to an influx of soldiers seeking to recruit people for forced labour. The thousands of villagers who have fled their homes to avoid the violence are highly concerned about their livelihoods in the upcoming year.
In June this year, members of the health team responsible for distributing the baby kits set off to reach the newly displaced communities in Karen State to provide them with much needed comfort and hygiene equipment. When we visited this project in July, we heard of the dangers they encountered and the hardships faced by the displaced. The team took extra baby kits with them, which proved to be of great comfort, even to mothers who had already given birth.
Thanks to their bravery, this program has been able to provide crucial assistance to thousands of newly displaced people in Karen State.
This project also continues to distribute baby kits to new mothers and their babies who have been displaced in other parts of from Karen State; providing basic hygiene and health supplies that are essential elements of maternal and infant care. Nutrition education and women's health education activities in the refugee community on the Thai/Myanmar border have also been increased. These activities have improved food security, awareness of critical issues relating to health and hygiene, and general sanitation in the camps.
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