Healthy minds and healthy bodies for mothers and children
January 2012: In villages across Sri Lanka, Plan is working with local residents and government health officials to make simple changes to improve lives. The main aim is to reduce the rate of under-5 child malnutrition, which can be as high as 50% in some villages, but the programme also addresses young children's intellectual development and general family wellbeing.
To begin with, Plan Sri Lanka, the Foundation for Health Promotion and Rajarata University trained health officials on how best to work with villagers to create an environment where local people felt comfortable raising their concerns and coming up with their own solutions.
Balance is the key
Many mothers said they were worried about malnutrition. After talking with the officials, they started up group exercise sessions and began to pool their limited food supplies so that every child got a more balanced diet. As a result, fewer children are now underweight, and their mothers are in better shape, too.
Other villagers wanted to make sure their children have enough early intellectual stimulation. They decided to create a model baby room in each village containing colourful posters, hanging mobiles, illustrated alphabets and other simple designs that individual mothers could adapt in their own homes.
Since this is where the youngest children spend most of their time, having a stimulating home environment is critical for early brain development.
Fathers also take part in the programme by spending more time with their children than they did before. They help build and decorate dedicated play areas, where children come together to learn better social skills.
Inomalee Madhushani, one of the mothers involved, describes the change in her village: "We gave our children chances to get together and play and the results were very positive. They know each other very well now. They even exchange their toys."
The men also have an important role in creating a happy environment at home. In most of these villages, families now have a "happiness calendar". Each family member marks if they are happy, sad or neutral every day. Identifying this makes it easier for people to recognise their own behaviour and the impact on others.
Since the programme started, women say their husbands consume less alcohol and fight less, and there are more smiley faces on the calendars.
A 10-year-old child health champion recently summed up what a difference all this has made to children at an international meeting co-sponsored by Plan: "For our birthdays we decided to give a gift to our parents in appreciation of their efforts."
By working together, the mothers and children have become healthier and more confident, and the success of this programme has attracted interest from other agencies in Sri Lanka, who are keen to replicate Plan's methods in other areas.