Rita, Tulsa, Thapa
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Helen Keller International

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HELEN KELLER INTERNATIONAL: Tuning in to Healthy Habits

Rita Thami Thapa lives on a small farm in central Nepal with her husband Tulsa and their young son. She works hard and does everything she can to keep her family healthy. And like many Nepali mothers, Rita looks forward to tuning in each week to a popular radio drama known as Bhanchhin Aama, or “Mother Knows Best.”

The show, which airs every Sunday across the country, delivers much more than entertainment. It’s an essential component of a five-year integrated health and nutrition program now being implemented by Helen Keller International and our partners across dozens of rural, underserved districts in Nepal. Called Suaahara II (“Good Nutrition”), the program is designed to lower rates of undernutrition and improve overall health in pregnant mothers and children under the age of two — a critical period for growth and development.

Nutrition status in Nepal has improved over the past decade, but some 36 percent of children under five are stunted (have a reduced growth rate), and anemia is still a significant concern for pregnant women, adolescent girls and young children. Poor nutrition in childhood and adolescence can lead to lifelong and irreversible damage, including reduced intellectual development, educational achievement and earning power.

Once a month, Rita gathers with two dozen other women in her community to discuss health and nutrition topics that come up in episodes of Bhanchhin Aama and relate them to their own experiences. The central character of the show, a fictional Nepali mother-in-law, has become a valued role model in Nepal and serves as a charismatic advocate for healthy habits like exclusive breastfeeding and eating plenty of leafy greens.

Rita’s discussion group, one of hundreds for Bhanchhin Aama listeners around the country, is organized by Tej Kumari Thapa, a local community member and Suaahara volunteer who provides health counseling to families through individual household visits. “We receive a lot of useful information from Tej,” says Rita. “She told us, if our child is sick, do not rely on home remedies. Instead, seek health services. Now, we visit the health post whenever our son is sick.”

With Suaahara’s integrated nutrition, health and hygiene programming now covering 42 of Nepal’s 77 districts, we continue to refine our approach based on our latest research. For example, we found that just 45 percent of households in the country own a radio, but more than half own a smartphone. As a result, we’re also promoting our radio program via Facebook and YouTube, where it can be streamed directly.

Undernutrition among women and children is often fueled by gender inequities as well — particularly those concerning workloads, decision-making power and control of finances. Helping parents reevaluate traditional household roles so that all family members benefit is an important element of the strategy.

“When we have husbands in the community meeting, we talk about sharing household chores, and many mothers then feel they are permitted to sit back and rest when they need to,” says Tej. “I feel good about the work I do because if I can contribute positively to even one mother, I have done my job.”

Rita and Tulsa share the responsibilities of the household and farm, and their vegetable garden is lush with a range of nutrient-rich vegetables: garlic, cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, potatoes, coriander leaves and papaya.

As Rita says, “Eating, laughing and working together is the key to happiness.”

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