Thursday, April 27, 2017

Joana dos Santos − a committed Mother Support Group member reaching out to mothers

Joana is providing counselling to a mother on the importance of breastfeeding.
©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/dmonemnasi
It is around mid-day as Joana Carvalho dos Santos (48) reaches Imaculada da Silva’s (30) house. Joana warmly greets her, inviting her into her small house. She could not attend the Mother’s Support Group meeting earlier today as her baby is too little. Imaculada lives with her family in suco (village) Mota Ulun, Liquica.

“This is my third baby. I breastfeed him, but I’m not sure about how often and when I should stop breastfeeding,” Imaculada says to Joana.

Joana physically examines the mother and her baby and provides the necessary guidance. “I didn’t know the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and that my son needs it until he is six months old,” says Imaculada. “I didn’t exclusively breastfeed my two older children. I wish I knew this information before,” Imaculada continues regretfully.

The journey of a field worker

On a typical day, Joana starts by visiting door-to-door, meeting parents, caregivers and pregnant women, and providing guidance and counselling. Since 2003, Joana has been promoting breastfeeding in remote villages of Timor-Leste as part of the Mother Support Group (MSG) initiative, established by the Alola Foundation with UNICEF assistance,

The concept of the Mother Support Group emerged in 2003 as a cost-effective measure and an extension of government services in the context of Timorese children’s fragile health and nutrition.


“I was keen to join the Mother Support Group when I heard that the district public health officer was looking for a volunteer. I learned many things, particularly about issues that related to women’s health and how to motivate people,” Joana continues. “Most women at that time had no confidence to speak in public, especially in front of men,” says Joana.

“After nominated as a member of a Mother Support Group, I received training about basic issues related to breastfeeding − how it works, and the importance of colostrum and the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding for six months,” Joana recounts, describing her journey.

A change agent touches many lives

“With the Liquica Health Service, we, members of the Mother Support Group, visited homes once in a week or mothers used to meet in my aldeia (area). We discussed various topics such as the importance of early breastfeeding, colostrum, exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and its advantages for mothers’ and babies’ health with mothers and community members,” Joana says.

Joana also often visited mothers at home who were dealing with breastfeeding problems such as swollen breasts or having difficulty attaching their new-born babies to the breast. “I used to spend time with the mothers to identify the problem and help them. Sometimes, I had to visit the mother over a few days to ensure that she and her baby were doing well,” explains Joana.

Joana is explaining to a mother about the importance of
giving complementary food to her child
beside regular breastfeeding until the age of 2 years.
©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/dmonemnasi
“I received training on infants and young child feeding and safe motherhood. It was an eye opener as I realised for the first time the importance of delivering at a health facility or with a trained midwife. After receiving related training, one of my responsibilities was to share information with people in my village,” Joana continues while talking about her work.

“I often receive calls to help with medical conditions related to deliveries,” Joana says, describing her current work. “I often help the patient to send a health facility. Sometimes, the mother or her family refuses to go to the hospital. In that case, I call the local midwife to assess the mother’s condition and assist the delivery at home,” Joana says while talking about her present work.”

A supportive family

Eusebio Carvalho dos Santos (48), Joana’s husband, has supported Joana all the way. Eusebio is a police officer in Liquica. He often extends a hand to Joana and her team during critical situations such as organising an ambulance for a critical patient in time. Not only that, but he also shares the household chores with his wife to allow her to have more time to work. “I would not be able to do all this without the support of my husband and family. Often I ask for my husband’s help for urgent issues such as sending patients to the hospital as communication is a major challenge in remote areas,” says Joana with pride. 

Eusebio Carvalho dos Santos (48), a supportive husband and caring father,
always stand by with Joana. ©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/dmonemnasi
“I’m proud of my wife − she is not only caring for mothers, she’s also helping our neighbours’ children and supporting others,” affirms Eusebio, smiling at his wife.

Moving forward with a dream

Joana has been working with the Alola Foundation since 2003, and was promoted from a volunteer to a Field Officer for her commitment and dedication. “In the early days, one of the major challenges of my work was to convince mothers and caregivers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months. In Timor, people start giving other food, such as sasoro, local fruits, etc. to children before they are six months old, causing stomach upsets and leading to malnutrition,” laments Joana. She continues with concern, “sometimes people don’t give children the best food for their development needs at the right time; this means without proper nutrition children can suffer from malnutrition.”

“I want mothers, especially young mothers, to look after their health better, which would contribute to improving the overall nutrition of the next generation,” Joana says with hope. With hard work and dedication, Joana earned respect and love of her peers.

Thanks to the valuable support of the European Union, with the assistance of UNICEF, the Ministry of Health has set up Mother Support Group in five municipalities this year and providing much-needed nutrition services to the children and mothers.

By Dr. Carla Jesuina do Carmo Quintao
Health Officer, UNICEF Timor-Leste

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