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Healthy Living for Mothers and Children in Sri Lanka

Women take part in an exercise session to improve their fitness.
Women take part in an exercise session to improve their fitness.
April 4, 2013

Healthy living for mothers and children in Sri Lanka Kudagama, in Sri Lanka's Anaradhapura District, is a village of straw-roofed huts and bare-brick homes. The villagers who live here are from one of Sri Lanka's lower castes and they have faced poverty and discrimination for generations, with harmful consequences for their health.

Healthy Improvements

But now the area has been chosen by Plan as part of a new program to improve the well-being of mothers and children. When the project started, nearly half of all the younger children in the village were malnourished – compared to a countrywide average of one in five. Today, that figure is around 35% and still reducing.

All that was needed was a little education, a little encouragement and an environment in which the villagers felt empowered to come up with their own ideas and put them into action. Plan trained local health officials to go into the village and start talking to people about how to change their lives. They explained the importance of nutrition and exercise. After, villagers discussed their problems and what they thought they could do to solve them.

Benefits and Progress

Young mother, Indika Suraney, explains one of the first things they did: "We got our children together and started to provide meals in groups. There used to be many underweight children… but now that has changed and they are putting on [weight each] month."

In fact, children are growing five times faster than before the program began. Parents are taking a more active role in activities to improve their children’s nutrition. Additionally, children are getting a more balanced diet when their parents get together and collectively prepare meals.

There are also other benefits from these group sessions. While the children help themselves from little bowls filled with meat, fish, vegetables, rice and potatoes, their parents sing songs, play games and ask them questions to stimulate their brains. In addition to the physical benefits, it's a healthy learning environment and an extra chance for children to develop social skills.

Progress is monitored through a regular weighing in the village-and this doesn't involve just the children. Mothers are encouraged to watch their weight, too, only in this case, they are usually trying to reduce it – and to reduce cases of heart-disease and other related illnesses in the process.

"After we started monitoring... most of the mothers started to lose weight," says Dinali Kusum Premadasa, Secretary of the Suwa Sahan Committee in Rambakulama, another village taking part in the project. "They are so enthusiastic about their own health. If they can't come for the regular weighing at the clinic, they come to my house to get it done."

Since the program started, villagers report eating more vegetables and fewer processed foods – and that means their children are being given a healthier diet, too. They also say that the process has made them more confident when dealing with officials and that service providers such as local health staff are more attentive to their needs.

Child Participation

As with all of Plan's activities, children themselves have a central role to play, in this case by spreading what they have learned about healthy living during house-to-house visits after school. Duleeka, a student at M/Anapallama Kanishta Vidyalaya school, explains how:

"We talk about the risks of being overweight with overweight parents. We talk about how to reduce sugary and fatty foods. Those who used to drink six or seven cups of sugary tea a day have cut down to two or three."

Duleeka says that she is happy to be helping the people in her village improve their health – and to save money in the process, and she's not alone. In addition to Kudagama and Rambakulama, there are around 75 other groups following the program and seeing similar results.

Around 10,000 mothers and 15,000 children under five have already been involved, and this number is going to rise. To make sure it does, Plan has held a series of meetings around the country where villagers and children have been able to share their experiences with government staff, the UN and other NGOs. Now Plan's approach looks set to spread across Sri Lanka, bringing better health and local empowerment as it does.

Learn more about Plan’s involvement in health


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