I am helping to break a dangerous tradition in my community

Mother-of-five Yuliana, lives in far eastern Indonesia in a simple house made of wood.

Like many others in her community, Yuliana’s family has a wooden rumah bulat or ’round house’ that serves as a kitchen and a storage place for harvested crops. The outbuilding has a door but no windows, and the walls and ceiling are black from smoke.

Aside from these uses, the rumah bulat is also a birthing room. According to local tradition, mothers and their newborns need to be ‘baked’ to become strong and healthy. Mother and child lie on a wooden platform with a fire burning underneath it – often for a month or more.

Yuliana did this for all five of her children, but now she discourages other mothers from doing the same. “It was so hot, I felt like I was dying, but we didn’t dare say no to our village elders,” Yuliana recalls. “It was such a miserable time. My children fell ill easily when they were younger, coughing all the time. As I now know the harmful impacts, I want people here to stop doing this.”

Today, Yuliana is a volunteer with a health project in her community. ChildFund and UNICEF work in partnership with community-based organisations, training health volunteers to raise awareness about proper health care for expectant mothers and young children.

The rumah bulat practice contributes to a significant number of young children suffering from chronic respiratory diseases and malnutrition. “It is not easy to change people`s views, since traditional norms are held in high esteem in my community,” Yuliana says.

“From the training, I understand it is not just a bad experience, but more importantly how badly it impacts the health of the mother and their baby. I want people here to understand this too.”

Yuliana is helping the local midwife to facilitate counselling sessions at their community health post. She carries a first-aid kit and keeps information about basic health care with her at all times.

“I am very happy to have Yuliana as a health volunteer,” says Adel, a community member. “She visits pregnant mothers regularly and discourages the rumah bulat practice. It’s difficult to break old habits, though.”

Adel was afraid to go against the rumah bulat tradition with her niece – a new mother – but they performed the ritual in a healthier way.

“I still underwent this practice for my niece when she gave birth,” Adel says. “I know it is wrong, but I was terrified of going against the village elders here. Yuliana has been telling us we shouldn’t keep doing this, but we’ve been told we will be cursed and that if we don’t follow the practices we will go crazy.”

However, her niece was confined to a rumah bulat with a bamboo wall that allowed more ventilation than the customary solid wood wall, and Yuliana was given the opportunity to check on both mother and baby.

Indonesia’s government supports the abolition of this practice, having introduced a new fine of US$30 if a woman gives birth at home instead of at a health centre – a hefty fine in Yuliana’s province, where the average income is US$17 a month. The government’s regulations and the sharing of health information among mothers are helping to reduce this harmful custom.

“I was really scared of the rumah bulat practice. I chose to stay at my uncle’s house in town so that I could give birth at the health centre,” says Dorsila, who, inspired by Yuliana, has also become a community health volunteer.

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