Promoting Breastfeeding in a time of Conflict

July 28, 2017

Food security in South Sudan remains critical. Across the country, over 1.1 million children are estimated to be acutely malnourished this year. Breastfeeding can play a crucial role in sustaining a childs nutrition, but not enough women are doing it.

By: Nina deVries

UNICEF South Sudan /2017/Ellie Kealey

Bentiu, South Sudan, 28 July 2017 – It took 12 hours of excruciating pain, but when it was over, Nyanyuot Gatnor’s life changed forever. She had given birth to a baby girl and had never been happier. Fittingly, she named her daughter Nyaruot, which means “patience” in the Nuer language.  Nyanyuot is just 17 years old and is from Rubkuai, Mayendit County, in northern part of South Sudan.

When fighting broke out in her region she fled and relocated to the Protection of Civilian site (PoC) in Bentiu. It’s a camp for displaced people due to the ongoing conflict, which began in December 2013. Nyanyuot gave birth in the PoC and says she was familiar with the concept of breastfeeding, but the midwives at the PoC taught her much more, such as the importance of early initiation of breastfeeding (putting baby to the breast within one hour of birth) and exclusive breastfeeding meaning that breast milk alone is the only food that a baby needs for the first six months of life, not even water.

UNICEF South Sudan /2017/Ellie Kealey

“I won’t stop breastfeeding this child, I know it’s good for her and I have to keep doing it. I’m very happy I’ve learned a lot from the midwives on breastfeeding my child, I will never forget this,” says Nyanyuot, sitting in her home at the PoC on a rainy day, cradling Nyaruot.

Other women at the PoC have mentioned not having enough milk, which they believe is a stress reactor to the conflict.

“Our relatives were being killed in front of us which gave me trauma and this contributed to the loss of my breast milk. Since we came here we have been given training on how best to breastfeed,” says 25-year-old Nyabuar Wahlok.

Through UNICEF support, World Relief runs a women’s clinic at the POC in Bentiu.

Yoannes Tito Magok is a medical practitioner there. He says women in general lack education on breastfeeding and that trauma can affect the hormones when it comes to breastfeeding.

“If a mother does not produce enough milk, instead of coming to the clinic to get help and advice from experts, she will just give powdered milk to her baby, or will start giving the child water,” he says.

This is bad practice because the baby may start to have issues with his/her stomach as the digestive system is not fully developed yet.

And that is why World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) exists. Every year from 1 to 7 August, globally, individuals and organizations raise awareness about the importance of breastfeeding.

In South Sudan, UNICEF funds various activities during WBW and UNICEF nutrition specialists participate in TV and radio talk shows and community counselling. Recent donors such as the Swiss Natcom, Canada Natcom and the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation (ECHO) funded training components.

Priscilla Bayo, a nutrition specialist with UNICEF explains that breastfeeding is crucial in South Sudan. It has been estimated that about 276,343 children in the country are severely malnourished as a result of lack of food and poor feeding practices, including mothers who do not breastfeed correctly.

“Early initiation within an hour of birth and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is still a challenge. Mixed feeding (breastfeeding with other food) is widely practiced and children are subjected to diseases such as diarrhea, as there is no provision of safe drinking water. Poor hygiene practices, such as poor hand-washing and open defecation, increase the risk of diarrhea and malnutrition,” says Bayo.

And although there is a long way to go to create awareness, young women like Nyanyuot show how behaviour can change.

Back at the PoC in Bentiu, Nyanyuot holds her daughter close, grateful she now knows how to properly take care of her.