Like Mother, Like Daughter: Investing in Healthier Families

March 6th, 2024 | story


Gulu shows off the USAID Advancing Nutrition vest she wore for health information sessions. Photo: Syrga Kanatbek kyzy

By Syrga Kanatbek kyzy

On a recent trip back home to Kyrgyzstan, my mom Gulu and I discovered that working with JSI is in the family. She is a community volunteer who supported the JSI-led USAID Advancing Nutrition project, and I am a senior communications officer in JSI’s Boston office. During our visit, I asked Mom to share more about her experience.

Two years ago, Mom became a community volunteer after learning about the project through our village health committee in Sary Oi in northeastern Kyrgyzstan. Mom was a member of a women’s village committee, and an elder group passed the responsibility of becoming a community volunteer to the committee. Since then, she has invested her time in teaching young mothers and other community members about healthy habits and personal finance management.

My mother takes this responsibility seriously. She has always known the importance of information, but when she was growing up, she thought knowledge was simply passed down; her parents did things a certain way because they learned it from their parents, and so on. Now, the internet and projects like USAID Advancing Nutrition offer new ways to gain knowledge. Having time to think about health and well-being is also new, as advances in technology and economic opportunities have largely reduced the time people must spend working to and worrying about making ends meet.

In our village, practices that benefit the health of women and their children, like breastfeeding and birth spacing, had never been emphasized or taught. As a volunteer, Mom learned about family planning, maternal health, and age-appropriate child nutrition, and became a vital source of information for the community.

Mom married young and didn’t have an opportunity to study. She frequently reminded me and my siblings–six sisters and one brother–of the independence education can provide, especially for women. Mom doesn’t want her daughters to have to depend on their husbands or anyone else for money.

A man and a woman sit, embracing each other, as they pose for a photo.

Gulu and her husband have encouraged their eight children to take their education seriously. Photo: Umut Kanapiyaeva

We’ve taken her advice. My brother and youngest sister are still in school in the village; two sisters are at boarding school; three are in college in Bishkek; and I am living and working in the U.S., after completing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees here.

Now, women come to Mom for advice on raising children and encouraging their education. “I believe others should know and have access to this information. Not only for themselves but for their kids’ health and well-being,” she says.

Balancing volunteer work with her household responsibilities can be a challenge. Training takes time, and the volunteers often share duties to manage it. When it’s her turn, Mom meets with women during sessions at the local health clinic and gatherings and in homes, especially in kitchens where younger women often spend their time. They discuss healthy cooking, like boiling instead of frying meat and making jam with less sugar. Mom also makes sure women know how to take care of their own nutritional needs by eating balanced meals.

Three women who are community health volunteers sit posing for a photo.

Community health volunteers often visit women at home. Photo: Nurilya Abdyraeva

“These days, young women are interested in learning the information to better care for their kids and family. And mothers-in-law let their daughters-in-law join our lessons,” Mom says.

The change is clear. Once expected to stay home, younger women are encouraged to attend the sessions. Even mothers-in-law, perhaps influenced by their exposure to health information or their own time as a volunteers, are more understanding. Higher wages and access to credit are also bringing changes in people’s homes. For example, refrigerators are becoming more common in the village, so produce and meat can be stored instead of cured with salt, helping retain nutritional value.

Yet the biggest change, Mom notes, lies in how kids are raised. “Parents spend time on phones when they could be talking to their kids. We should be more involved in our children’s education.” To that end, USAID Advancing Nutrition piloted the Responsive Care and Early Learning Addendum in the Kyrgyz Republic to help health care providers talk with caregivers about ensuring a supportive learning environment for their children.

Though the project has ended, Mom continues volunteering to share important information with her community and her family, supporting those around her to build healthier lives. I find myself on a similar path as I support JSI’s work to make health services more equitable and accessible, a testament to the investments my mother has made in me.

A woman milks a cow in rural Kyrgyz Republic

Gulu milks a cow on her farm. Despite the rapid changes in her village, livestock still has an important role in people’s diets. Photo: Syrga Kanatbek kyzy

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