Cover Story

ACCELERATING MISSION NUTRITION, BONITA SHARMA

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Sometimes you can spot a successful woman in the wild without knowing anything about her. It’s not the outward accoutrements like having nice things, but how she conducts herself in a way which is different from others. Bonita Sharma, co-founder and CEO of SOCHAI (Social Changemakers And Innovators), may look like any other woman her age, but the moment you start a conversation with her, you can sense her brilliance oozing out. The Female Champion at UNESCO, Sharma and her organisation won the Zero Hunger category of LEAD 2030 challenge for sustainable development goal. Her contribution in the field of public health in Nepal has been well and truly recognised and she was listed on BBC’s Top 100 Women of 2019. TNM got candid with a real-life hero to understand what it takes to one.bonita-10

Sharma completed her master’s degree in Public Health in 2018. However, before starting on public health, she wanted to go to the USA but it didn’t work out. “I wanted to travel, so I chose public health but when I started working in the field, I realised this is what I wanted to do. So, I volunteered and participated in research works. I also worked for a non-profit organisation for two-and-a-half years,” she says. During her work, she got to be close to the community and in a way, got a chance to know the health system of the entire nation. “But an organisation has a hierarchy and sometimes it was hard to find enough space for new ideas,” comments Sharma. She was not ready to let her ideas be confined as mere ideas but wanted to put them into action. She had also developed a certain level of networking with government bodies and was used to the real status of the community as well.

“The 9-to-5 job was not satisfying and I wanted to go beyond that.”

SOCHAI was not an immediate idea to go for after quitting her job. She had a passion for nutrition since her college days; she did her bachelor’s degree dissertation in nutrition and also worked for a school nutrition project during her community work. “Once, I was in Lubhu, Lalitpur with my friends. We came across a mother who fed her two-month young baby with cashew nut paste which caused the death of the baby. This event really hit us and was the real kick-start to head for a new organisation,” she reveals.bonita-7

She, along with her friends, began solving what was ahead. She then started to find like-minded young people and started a movement called Youth for Nutrition; SOCHAI was yet to be born. The movement was a community-based youth network for education and advocacy.

“Luckily we came across Youth Innovation Challenge by UNICEF and out of 660 ideas, our idea of bracelets won.

The prize amount was $5000, as big of financial support was for us, its value on the side of motivation was very high for the beginning stage,” she shares.

The MUAC tape which is used to measure the level of malnutrition globally has a colourful scale. When taking measurements, if it shows a green colour, it’s a healthy baby. Similarly, yellow means moderately malnourished and red is severely malnourished. Expressing the level of nutrition through colour was effective for mothers; they acted according to the colour result as colour is a universal language. This inspired the team for a colourful bracelet. Since it was in the hands of a mother, it’d work as an alarm.bonita-8

Explaining the information the nutrition bracelets indicates, she says, “There are five different colours of beads in the bracelet, and the numbers in between are the age of the child. Colour represents the type of food that can be fed to babies of respective age. The bracelet is based on the nutrition amount recommendation of WHO. From 0-6, there is a white bead which means exclusive breastfeeding until six months. From 6-to-9 there are four colours which indicate four types of food groups that must be included in the meal for the baby.” The bracelet contains food information for a baby for up to two years, and it’s easy to understand. “I think the idea worked because of its simplicity in today’s world of apps and blogs,” she adds, “We also had a concept of an app, but it’d bounce overhead to the people in rural communities. Bracelets were more practical and simple to understand.”bonita-3

It’s reported that since the day of conceiving to the age of two, a child’s 80 percent of brain development takes place. This is called the golden 1000 days. “The brain development cannot be reversed after two years of age. So, if malnourished in those 1000 days, a child is malnourished for life,” she emphasises. Highlighting other bitter realities, she adds, “In rural areas, people are not aware enough of nutrition; they’re feeding infant formula to newly born babies, but the baby’s body is not ready to accept and digest it. Some others are found only breastfeeding their babies as old as nine months, this also causes malnutrition.”

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The team of SOCHAI consists of trained youths and they provide counselling and bracelets to all women coming to the health centres. How much food to serve the baby and how often also matters, so, they just don’t ask the people in the community to eat healthily, rather they inform the nutritional values of locally available food and suggest eating them

The identification of local nutritious products also helps in providing nutritious food. “The land of Province 2 is fertile for growing all kinds of food, but ironically this is the region with the highest percentage of malnutrition,” claims Sharma.

“We are not malnourished because we are poor, we are malnourished because we have not recognised the nutritious values of locally available food.”

Malnutrition is often misunderstood as not getting enough nutritious food. “But there are problems of undernutrition and obesity,” Sharma citing different sources presents data, “Sixty percent of deaths by non-communicable diseases are directly related to diet. There is also a problem of hidden hunger. In data, stunting is the biggest problem—36 percent. If you see this in Karnali Province, it’s above 50 percent. This is not just physical; it determines one’s progress in education and career. Similarly, wasting is 10 percent and underweight is 27 percent. This way, it’s a very serious emergency and we may see little to nothing happening.”bonita-9

However, Sharma does not think the situation is irreversible. “Nepal has won the SUN (Scaling Up Nutrition) award and the country is progressing a lot. Since the problem of malnutrition cannot be solved alone by nutritious food, a multi-sector government plan has been introduced where the government works on literacy, sanitation, education, women empowerment and so on. But the real societies are sometimes way behind than we imagine,” she comments.

Sharma is also a member of the province-level food steering committee for Bagmati Province. “The government always comes with the best plans but they are not so effective in the field, this is mainly because of almost no participation of people concerned in the planning table. I am honoured to be a part of it. I will be representing the youths and women. I have been to the community; I’ve met adolescent’s girls and women and can talk through their perspective. Now I know the problems and I can suggest the government on what to do and how. Basically, my work will be to bridge the gap between the community and the government,” she claims. “Similarly, we are working to bring together the organisations concerned to successfully complete the challenge of zero hunger by 2030.”

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Is it safe for a woman to travel to villages alone? You have reached an age, why don’t you get married and settle down?—these are the questions she often faces. But her friends and family do not let her energy wither. “The encouragement from close ones has made it very easy and media recognition has helped a lot too,” she says. “We are really fortunate that there has not been any kind of political interference in our work.”

As per her, the male youth force to drive the change in society is absent in most villages and though gender discrimination is yet prevailing in society, women have been very receptive. “In comparison to men, women have to go through various phases like mensuration, pregnancy, lactation and need more nutritious food. But the women in the family eat at last and have to be content with whatever is remaining—which is not enough. Overall, gender discrimination is putting nutrition health of women in danger,” she illustrates.bonita-6

Currently, SOCHAI is involved in two areas of work—product and service. Along with nutrition bracelets they have menstrual bracelets, too. “Teenage pregnancy is also a big problem. Many adolescent girls haven’t understood mensuration. This is specially targeted for them. The menstrual cycle runs for 28 days on average so the bracelet has 28 beads. Red shows period days, orange beads are ovulation time and the youth from SOCHAI counsel them to skip or have safe sex if they don’t want to conceive. Also, the elephant in the bracelet can be moved to keep track of the menstrual cycle,” she informs. They use these products to educational programmes and also sell it in bulk to organisations which work in the areas of nutrition and menstruation.

Pregnant women and lactating mothers are other beneficiaries of their products. “If a pregnant mother is malnourished, her child will be malnourished and if it’s a girl her child will again be malnourished. So, SOCHAI is marching through three approaches: We work with adolescent girls at the school level; pregnant women and lactating mothers through health centres, and with community groups in skill-based programmes,” she shares.

Societies depend heavily on women for health care, yet women’s own health needs are frequently neglected, their contributions to health development undervalued, and their working conditions ignored. The increasing recognition of the need for universally accessible primary health care and of people’s right and duty to participate individually and collectively in their own care makes it vital to critically examine the role and status of women in its provision. Sharma nearly echoes Robert Frost’s famous lines ‘Miles to go before I sleep…’ and says, “There is a lot to do and there are a lot of opportunities ahead. Patience and consistency are what we all need to cultivate to bring real change.”

Text by Yunish Dahal
Photos by Hritik Shrestha

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