“Roasting”—a Cambodian tradition that sees new mothers lie on beds over a fire for several days in the belief it will scare off evil spirits and warm the body after giving birth—is one of many dangerous but deeply rooted practices that midwives and health practitioners are trying to debunk.
Age-old postpartum traditions such as roasting, drinking alcohol, eating heavily salted food and covering umbilical cords with ash and beetle’s nests persist across rural Cambodia and have serious health repercussions that can include dehydration, infections, eclampsia and malnutrition, said Chan Theary, director of the Reproductive and Child Health Alliance.
“When women are pregnant they do not get their periods, so after birth they want to expel the old blood and are encouraged to drink alcohol to make them bleed,” Ms. Theary said of one of the practices.
“Although a lot of progress has been made in urban areas, in rural areas women still practice these traditions,” she said, adding that her organization works in nine provinces disseminating information about improved postnatal practices through midwives and commune councils.
In Kompong Chhnang province, about 6,000 mothers are subscribed to “Village Baby Care,” a project set up in 2013 by People in Need (PIN), which sends voice messages every three days during the first 28 days of a child’s life, telling mothers how best to take care of their newborns, said Tracy Yuen, the NGO’s maternal and child health program manager.
According to an evaluation report released last week by PIN, the messages have reduced the number of women who practice roasting and drink alcohol after giving birth by 50 percent in comparison to those not subscribed to the messages.
“We chose Kompong Chhnang because the neonatal [newborn] mortality rate at the time was 45 per 1,000 births, which was almost double the national average of 27 per 1,000 births,” Ms. Yuen said.
“[I]n the past 10 to 20 years, Cambodia has made significant improvements in their under 5 child mortality rates, but the neonatal mortality hasn’t seen nearly the same proportional improvement.”
In the coming months the project will expand to offer messages during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, Ms. Yuen said.
Kaing Sokhim, 30, a midwife at Kompong Tralach district’s Ampil Teuk health center, said the women who receive the voice messages—which consist of dialogues between mothers, grandmothers, midwives and doctors, and touch on issues including breastfeeding, roasting and umbilical cord care—regularly come back to the hospital when they identify signs of illness or infections.
“[Mothers] put ashes or beetle’s nests on the umbilical cord. This can easily get infected with bacteria and cause tetanus,” Ms. Sokhim said.
“Some mothers come because the baby’s umbilical cords looks infected, and they know this because the messages describe what they should look like.”