My work in the field of maternal, newborn and child health and nutrition for the past 34 years has given me the privilege of visiting thousands of villages and communities around the world, particularly in India. Through my involvement with the CORE Group Polio Project, those visits have often included observing polio rounds and immunization days in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
On one such visit in the spring of 2016, a colleague and I were at a routine immunization site to see how Project Concern International’s (PCI) polio program was transitioning since the country had been declared polio free. What happened that day led to a completely new path for PCI, one that has allowed us to also address malnutrition, an issue that continues to plague India.
We watched as frontline care workers—with much efficiency, skill and concentration—organized women and infants into lines, immunizing each child and taking care of the medicines and needles in a safe, hygienic manner. But something felt “off.” Opportunities were being missed. While the immunization process was going quite well, the Community Mobilizers and ASHAs who had organized the session were not engaging with the mothers and children in attendance, many of whom looked malnourished.
My colleague and I spoke with some of the mothers, asking how they were and what they were feeding their infants and children. The responses were telling. Clearly, these young mothers needed counseling, and, clearly, we were missing the opportunity to provide them with the extra support they so desperately needed. The infrastructure and platforms were there. We just needed to take full advantage of what was already in place and creatively build upon it.
Typically, PCI receives funds when we respond to a donor’s request for application. But in this instance, we brought the need to the funder and other partners. We saw an opportunity to leverage and layer nutrition interventions on top of an existing program with tremendous potential. Thus, the Empowering Families to Improve Nutritional Status of Women and Children in Selected Blocks of Five Districts of UP, India project was born.
Thanks to funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PCI carried out the project in partnership with Alive and Thrive, FHI360 and the International Food Policy Research Institute. To achieve sustainable change around selected practices related to maternal, infant and young child nutrition, the project focused on a three-pronged, evidence-based strategy: 1. Social & Behavior Change; 2. Capacity Strengthening of Community Mobilization Coordinators; and, 3. Convergence.
PCI and partners conducted a 10-month study on the relationship between interpersonal communication sessions and the knowledge and practices of pregnant women. Results suggest that the more interpersonal communication or counseling a mother receives, the better her nutritional status and that of her children, even in a short period of time.
Whether it’s a routine immunization initiative, water and sanitation project or an agriculture intervention, we can and must find creative and cost-effective ways to leverage existing program platforms for better nutritional outcomes – for women, children and families in India and around the world.
Janine Schooley, MPH, is the Senior Vice President of Programs at Project Concern International (PCI), a San Diego-based global development organization that drives innovation from the ground up to create meaningful and measurable change in people’s lives. Together with our partners, PCI empowers communities to enhance health, end hunger, overcome hardship and advance women & girls worldwide. Last year alone, PCI impacted the lives of nearly 10 million people in 15 countries, including India. For more information, visit www.PCIGlobal.org.