Frontline Stories

The Power of Grandmothers

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Grandmothers across the globe play a far more important role than the go-to babysitter on date night. As it turns out, we have learned that grandmothers are vital to not only caring for young children but also advising and educating younger women in their communities on all aspects of family well-being. Interestingly, in the developing world, the influence of grandmothers even extends to the men in their communities as well.

The work of the Grandmother Project and World Vision has demonstrated that when grandmothers are acknowledged, included and given access to new information, their commitment and contribution to family and community health and well-being increases. Empowering grandmothers; enhancing communication between grandmothers, younger women and men; and strengthening the role of grandmother groups can also contribute to strengthening understanding and social cohesion within families and communities.

When it comes to the health and nutrition of mothers and their children, grandmothers play a vital role in providing support during pregnancy, labour, delivery and the postpartum period. And we know that because of all this, grandmothers have a significant influence on maternal and child health and nutrition practices. Despite this influence, grandmothers are often ignored as a resource for advancing the goals of health and nutrition programmes.

Adequate nutrition during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood is critical to ensure optimal growth, development and survival of children. Children weakened by malnutrition often die from diseases that are both preventable and easy to treat, such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. Those lucky enough to survive often suffer frequent illnesses and reduced opportunities for education and income earning. Young women with a history of malnutrition tend to have more difficulty in childbirth and give birth to smaller babies, thus perpetuating a cycle of malnutrition. In Sierra Leone, maternal and child malnutrition persists at high levels with long-term impacts on the nation's social and economic development.

Starting in 2013, World Vision began empowering grandmothers in Sierra Leone to be positive agents of change in their communities. Known as Mamanieva, which means "for grandmothers" in Mende, the innovative project implemented a grandmother-inclusive approach to social and behaviour change for nutrition. This approach builds on the culturally-designated role of grandmothers as advisors and caregivers. In the approach, community members are supported to analyse the role, relationships and influence of specific family members in their community, and as a result, they have come to recognise the important role that grandmothers play. Grandmothers are then publicly recognised and praised through intergenerational community sessions that highlight their positive role in the community when it comes to maternal and child health. Relationships between daughters and mothers-in-law are improved – this is demonstrated during the praise sessions, when daughters or young mothers are given the opportunity to openly praise the grandmothers through a song, performing a skit or dance, or making a speech. Through this process, grandmothers not only acquire more confidence but their traditional role within the community are also strengthened.

Monthly participatory dialogue sessions are held with grandmothers to promote key nutrition messages. Finally, intergenerational forums in which grandmothers and young mothers come together for dialogue on nutrition and health issues are held.

At the close of the Mamanieva Project, 90% of grandmothers in project communities understood issues of proper nutrition for mothers and babies. This knowledge was clearly transferred to pregnant women and mothers as significant improvements were observed for improved nutrition practices during pregnancy and for infants and young children. What's more, women had less complications in their pregnancies and gave birth to healthier babies. Even men in the community recognised the amazing power of empowering women!

The amazing impact grandmothers have on their communities should remind us all to be thankful for these women in our lives.

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