Emergency support helps mothers through flood


March 7, 2014

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  • Despite being uprooted from their homes by flooding in January, the women in our Hati Kami program had a safety net of fellow mothers to help them care for their infants. Photo: Gunawan Meliyandoko/Mercy Corps
  • An emergency Mothers Support Group gathers in one of the temporary evacuation centers to discuss how to overcome the difficulties of breastfeeding in the crisis situation. Unsanitary and crowded conditions made it more important than ever for women to keep up with healthy care and nutrition to prevent their babies from getting sick. Photo: Gunawan Meliyandoko/Mercy Corps
  • Ibu Khoriya gave birth just two days before the flood. Our staff and Hati Kami mothers helped her learn to properly care for her newborn despite the extreme hardships she faced as a displaced new mother. Photo: Ellen Simanungkalit/Mercy Corps

The start of 2014 has not been easy in Jakarta. The capital of Indonesia was inundated with rain in January, and flooding forced nearly 40,000 people from their homes.

As we watched the situation develop, we immediately thought of the mothers we work with in the west of the city, which was awash with floodwater.

In normal conditions, our Hati Kami program provides Mother Support Groups and education about breastfeeding and infant care to help new mothers provide proper nutrition for their children. Now, where were these mothers?

When we arrived in Kalideres subdistrict, we found out: A semi-constructed warehouse had been transformed into a temporary refuge for flood victims. The condition was far from comfortable. The unfinished concrete floor was still rough and dusty. There was no electricity or privacy — nearly 100 people were crowded into an area with an open, makeshift kitchen. Families were huddled together to sleep on secondhand tarps, in a space shared with flies and mosquitos.

Without emergency supplies or tables of any description, mothers, children and infants had no choice but to eat together in the same unhygienic conditions in which they slept. Our visit was the first support they’d received.

We gathered with over 40 women for an emergency Mothers Support Group. Our group leader Ibu Nenang led us in a song to start the session: “Kalau Kau Beri ASI” (“If You Breastfeed” sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”). Then we began talking about how they were caring for their babies. Were they still able to breastfeed in these conditions? I can’t begin to describe how happy I felt when I saw most of the women present smile proudly and raise their hands — yes, they were still breastfeeding.

Knowing that the stress of emergencies can sometimes make breastfeeding more difficult, we asked the women if they’d noticed any change in their breastfeeding patterns before and after the floods. I felt such a sense of relief and happiness when everyone chorused together, saying that breastfeeding was still going well. These strong women weren’t going to let a disaster get in the way of providing what they knew was best for their children.

In the midst of our discussion, a new mother named Ibu Khoriyah came out to join us. She was still recovering after the birth of her baby just five days earlier. Our health volunteer sat down with her and gave Ibu Khoriyah information on how to overcome the challenges of breastfeeding, emphasizing its importance especially in these conditions. The constant rain and stagnant flood water increases the risk of water-borne disease; for babies, even a little diarrhea can bring on life-threatening dehydration.

After our breastfeeding session ended, we continued chatting with the mothers about their homes and the possessions they hadn’t been able to save in the face of the sudden floods. They spoke of their struggles and the sadness they shared through all they had experienced.

Despite their own struggles, they all understood how much more difficult things must be for Ibu Khoriyah, the newest mother among them. A new mother should be resting at home, eating healthy food in a safe, calm and clean environment. Ibu Khoriyah’s situation couldn’t be further from that picture.

As a group, the wonderful women of Kamal promised each other that they would look after Ibu Khoriyah and her tiny baby who didn’t yet have a name. Together they would support her to keep breastfeeding, whatever the circumstances.

And so our visit ended with the promise of support from an inspiring group of women for their fellow mother, Ibu Khoriyah. It is their example that reminds us how important the culture of Mothers Support Groups has become since we began our work here.

To give women a place to share their worries with each other, to learn new knowledge and motivate each other to stay positive even when faced with such hardship — to empower each other and trust in their ability to make the best choices for their life — this is the power of Hati Kami.

May we all learn from the strong women of Kamal who, even in the face of disaster, are there for each other to provide the support and friendship they all need.