Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The First 1,000 Days: Fathers Support Good Nutrition

This is the third post in a four-part series from Stephen M. Colecchi, director of USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, about his travels to Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania as part of an ecumenical delegation of Christian leaders sponsored by Bread for the World.

As a father of two daughters, I wondered about the role of fathers in improving nutrition for their families. My first encounter with a father was in the Pediatric Malnutrition Ward at the hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. He sat beside the bed of his malnourished daughter. Beside every other bed sat mothers, but his presence reminded me of the important role of fathers in improving nutrition for their children, especially during the critical 1,000 days from conception to age two.

At most hospitals in Africa, the hospital staff can only provide diagnostic and medical treatment. Family members provide basic care and feeding. They even cook the meals. This lone father smiled broadly as we approached. His daughter was improving.

Most of the mothers in the hospital ward had other children who were at home being cared for by their fathers and other relatives. The fathers were also tending the subsistence farms which provided food for the rest of the family.

At a village in southern Malawi we witnessed the role of fathers up close. The village was organized by WALA, the Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement program supported by U.S. international assistance through a grant to Catholic Relief Services, into care groups of ten to twelve families. One parent was elected from each group to learn and then teach the others about how to improve nutrition. The 16 care groups are headed by 10 mothers and 6 fathers.

The involvement of fathers in a traditional mother’s role was deliberate. Some strategies required the involvement of men in the village, e.g. planting more diverse crops, irrigating the fields, and building latrines and hand washing stations. The latter interventions are critical to preventing diarrhea and other diseases that compromise nutrition and health.

The fathers involved as care group leaders helped encourage other men in the village to adopt these important practices. We heard the story of one household which had resisted the new practices, only to adopt them when the village successfully avoided a cholera outbreak in the region. The father built the best latrine and washing station in the village!

My final blog will explore what we can do to support the 1,000 days movement to improve nutrition and save lives.

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