An ordinary day with an extraordinary model

For International Women’s Day, we asked our ONE Moms and partners to write about ordinary women and girls who have inspired them to be better activists. In this post, Mary Beth Powers from Save the Children write about Mahmuda, a community health worker in Bangladesh.

For Mahmuda Ahkter, it was an ordinary day. After feeding her own children and husband early in the morning, she began her work as a community health worker, providing helpful advice and assessing sick children in her village of Khanpura.

For me, as the campaign director for Save the Children’s newborn and child survival campaign (www.goodgoes.org), it was anything but ordinary. Having traveled around Bhola and Barisal Districts in Bangladesh on a combination of sea planes, cars, boats and something called a “bicycle trailer” (think bicycle pulling small wooden flatbed on which I was perched), I was now walking the muddy paths between houses to see Mahmuda at work. Calmly seated in the middle of a group of mothers, Mahmuda was explaining the importance of breastfeeding and the need to add nutritious foods to the diet of babies starting at the age of six months.

While breastfeeding in rural Bangladesh is a fairly common practice, malnutrition among young children is far too common due to inadequate complementary feeding and frequent infections for children between 6 and 24 months. Chronic malnutrition rates in Bangladesh hover around 43 percent despite gains in nutrition and in other key health indicators. The issue of chronic malnutrition as opposed to acute malnutrition (as in the Horn of Africa in the last year) seldom grabs the headlines. Globally, more than 170 million children face chronic malnutrition, also known as stunting, largely as a result of poor maternal nutrition contributing to low birth weight, inadequate diet, inappropriate feeding practices and frequent illness, leaving a large portion of the world’s children not only shorter than they otherwise would be, but also facing cognitive impairment that lasts a lifetime.

Mahmuda, for her part, was impressing upon women that breastfeeding was exceedingly important –- but that at six months, children needed foods in addition to the breastmilk. Unassuming toddlers walked up to Mahmuda in the middle of the nutrition session and walked off with her props — the local vegetables, fruits, eggs and grains that she was displaying in order to reinforce the kinds of local and low cost foods that must be added to the diet. Sitting back down with their mothers, many decided to take a bite of their stolen prizes, showing moms that these foods that previously were thought to be inappropriate for babies were actually tasty enough to the youngsters, providing an advertisement that Madison Avenue executives might envy in its impact.

After completing the session, Mahmuda stood up to talk with me and the other visitors about her work with the mothers and families in her village. I was a bit surprised to find that this pillar of her community was less than 5 feet tall. She had appeared in a television ad that we called RUNWAY, created in our partnership with the Ad Council and I had imagined her much taller, more like a runway model. Of course, that did make me wonder about the foods she had received as a young girl some 25 years ago… Today’s daughters will have a higher stature, literally and figuratively, thanks to her efforts.

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