In large parts of Amhara region of Ethiopia, food availability and production are among the highest in the country. Yet, so are rates of chronic malnutrition (DHS, 2011). Alive & Thrive, in collaboration with the Government of Ethiopia, set out to address these discrepancies.
“If I cook and feed my baby animal source foods, my hands and cooking utensils will be contaminated,” explains Ayelech* when asked why she doesn’t feed her two-year-old child animal foods during fasting periods.
Ayelech is not alone. In March 2015, during the 55-day fasting period (lent), A&T conducted a study to determine the effects of fasting on child feeding practices in Amhara region, where 85% of the population identifies as Orthodox Christian and observes the fast. Findings revealed that although parents knew that children under age seven were excused from fasting, they still did not feed their children animal source foods. The fear of contaminating their own food with a child’s food was a significant barrier to optimal infant and young child feeding practices (IYCF), and is contributing to high rates of chronic malnutrition. Simple practices to avoid food contamination, such as washing the utensils used to feed their children, were not perceived as adequate behaviors.
To tackle these misconceptions and to foster behavior change, A&T partnered with the most trusted source of information among families in the region: the Christian Orthodox Church. A&T and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission (EOC-DICAC) began by engaging senior church leaders in the South Wollo and North Gondar zones. We explained the adverse effects that existing nutrition practices are having on children in their communities, and provided them with training on the importance of IYCF, equipping them with the skills needed to mobilize other priests and catalyze change in their communities.
As one priest explained after receiving our training, the lack of information is one of the biggest barriers to optimal child feeding practices in the region. “We have the milk! We have the eggs! But I don’t know anyone, including myself that prepares it for the children, especially during fasting. We didn’t know! We usually just let them eat whatever is available. This is very valuable information and we have a responsibility to pass it on and even implement this in our own households.”
Today, priests in the South Wollo and North Gondar zones of Amhara region are cascading the IYCF training to district-level priests, and incorporating messages of optimal feeding practices into their weekly sermons. As one priest noted, as he practiced giving a sermon with IYCF messages, “We all know that our religion requires [only] those above age 7 to fast. But [in our households] the young children are not eating a variety of foods. During fasting, they are eating the same thing as the adults. We are essentially making them fast. This must stop! We have to feed our children eggs and milk for their proper growth. Parents have the responsibility to ensure this happens.”
*Name has been changed.