UNICEF works with communities to improve key family practices in Niger
By Bob Coen
GARIN BAWA, Niger, 24 January 2011 – In the courtyard of her family’s compound, Zuliah Baba, 32, goes through her nightly chores under a full moon. The familiar sounds of similar household routines echo through this rural village – chores that are being influenced by an innovative new UNICEF programme, Key Family Practices, which is having a dramatic impact on child health in Niger.
Before she serves dinner to her four oldest children and husband, Ms. Baba makes sure they all carefully washes their hands while she breastfeeds her 11-month-old son, Haruna. When it’s time to go to sleep, the children excitedly scurry to their bed mats, protected underneath mosquito nets.
The family has changed its behaviour because of weekly meetings where they receive information about how to protect themselves against disease.
“These information sessions have been a great help with the health of my children,” said Ms. Baba. “It has allowed me to attend to their health better and take them to the health centre less.”
The community information-sharing sessions are a key feature of the Key Family Practices Programme. The men of the village meet regularly with the chief and elders, while the women get together under the village meeting tree to decide whether to adopt the seven essential points that are at the heart of the initiative:
• Breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a child’s life
• Sleeping under a mosquito net
• Providing children with oral rehydration solution in case of diarrhoea
• Washing hands with soap
• Introducing other nutritious foods to children after six months
• Providing children with preventive health care
• Bringing children to a health post at the first sign of illness.
Despite recent progress, Niger still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. One child out of five here will die before reaching the age of five, usually from easily preventable illness such as malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea.
The simple behaviour changes promoted by the Key Family Practices Programme can significantly reduce these deaths.
"It’s important that we have health services available and we extend them,” said UNICEF Representative in Niger Guido Cornale. “But there are many things that can be taken care of on the family level. The Key Family Practices can greatly improve the healthy development of children, their chance of survival. So these are things we can do on the family level.”
Communities help themselves
An essential part of this programme, which is being implemented jointly by UNICEF and the Government of Niger, is that communities themselves are in driver’s seat. Opportunities for change, as well as constraints and solutions, are discussed at the community level. Once a consensus on the need for change is reached, local solutions are identified and applied.
In this way, changes in individual and family practices are supported by social change – the adoption of new collective norms and practices.
“Since we introduced the Key Family Practices in my village, I’ve noticed a difference,” said the chief of Gidan Bawa village, Oumarou Kachallo. “It’s had an impact on the economy, because people are spending less on medicines. There’s also a social dimension, because people are helping each other and discussing these practices.”
Spreading the word
Zuliah Baba’s husband, Issaka Baba, is happy about the changes in his household.
“When my wife tried exclusive breastfeeding, I noticed the advantages and differences with my other children,” he said. “We used to have to take to them to the clinic almost weekly, but with this one, he’s not been sick.”
Thanks to the increased use of mosquito nets, there also has been a dramatic reduction in deaths due to malaria, the number-one killer of children in Niger.
UNICEF is using a number of communication vehicles – including films, community theatre and radio – to spread the simple messages of the Key Family Practices Programme. The aim, over the next three years, is to introduce the programme to hundreds of villages across Niger, reaching the most vulnerable communities and empowering them to adopt new practices that will save and improve children’s lives.