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Wishing that toddlers sing 'I am a healthy kid' once again

Jakarta Post - September 10, 2023

Kornelius Purba, Jakarta – The specter of the New Order's state-sponsored women's organization Dharma Wanita came to my mind when I recently attended a routine gathering of a group of young mothers with their three-year-old kids and tutors in a public kindergarten in Kebon Jeruk, West Jakarta.

Dharma Wanita, which translates literally into "the virtue of women", was once a very effective tool for organizing social movements to promote health and good parenting with a top-down mechanism that could reach nearly all levels of society, even the neighborhood (Rukun Tetangga, RT) level, through a massive bureaucratic outreach system.

After the fall of Soeharto in May 1998, the organization lost its zeal partly because of rampant abuse of power and corruption. It was renamed Dharma Wanita Persatuan (DWP), with a mission of promoting social volunteerism.

The largest DWP meeting occurred in 2011 during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. At that time more than 1,000 Family Welfare Movement (PKK) activists from 264 regencies and districts in 33 provinces across Indonesia gathered in Bandung, West Java to declare themselves agents of change and promoters of healthy living. But there was no meaningful follow-up.

In Kebon Jeruk that morning, a group of children loudly sang a song that vividly reminded me of the Dharma Wanita events that occurred decades ago, which were aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles among children. It was a popular song as state radio RRI and state TV station TVRI regularly aired it.

The song, titled Aku Anak Sehat (I am a healthy child), was composed by the legendary song writer AT Mahmud.

Aku anak sehat (I am a healthy child)
Tubuthku kuat (My body is strong)
Karena ibuku (Because my mother)
Rajin dan cermat (Is diligent and careful)
Semasa aku bayi (When I was a baby)
Aku diberi ASI (She breastfed me)
Makanan bergizi (She gave me nutritious food)
dan immunisasi (And immunizations)

The gathering took place at Rumah Anak Sigap, a parenting and early-learning center for children ranging from infants to three years old, which was developed and is operated by the philanthropic Tanoto Foundation.

The foundation also runs three other facilities in collaboration with the Jakarta city government, nine in Kutai Kartanegara in East Kalimantan, nine in Pandeglang regency, Banten, four in Central Java and two in Riau.

Rumah Anak Sigap provides parenting training for young mothers, facilities for children aged three and under to socialize and individual support for mothers in need.

The facility is designed to attract children. Whenever they gather, they sing popular children's songs, socialize and interact with each other.

The atmosphere was cheerful when I visited. The young mothers could not hide their pride when their children followed the teachers' instructions. Some children were interested in books and asked their mothers for explanations of the pictures they saw in the books.

The women and their kids came from a nearby neighborhood and although they might have a low socioeconomic status, their enthusiasm signaled their hopes of a better future.

One of the women told me she received basic training on how to keep her children healthy, including the prevention of stunting. As of April 2023, 14.8 percent of children aged below five in Jakarta (116,000) are stunted, according to official statistics.

The 2022 Indonesian Nutrition Status Survey (SSGI) found that stunting in children nationwide stood at a worrying 21.6 percent. The government has set a target of reducing the figure to 17 percent this year and 14 percent in 2024.

To protect the children from stunting, the mothers learn about nutritious food and drinks that they can easily find in traditional markets at affordable prices. "Now I am a better mother for my son, who is growing healthier," said a 36-year-old woman who attended the program along with her husband.

Inge Kusumo, the country head of Tanoto Foundation Indonesia, admitted that the government had done a lot to improve children's health and welfare. The private sector plays a complementary role, including in advocacy works to encourage regional governments to pay more attention to the development of children, including stunting eradication, she added.

UNICEF Indonesia and Tanoto Foundation have been working since 2021 on a four-year partnership program titled "Unlocking Future Potential with Nutrition: Towards Zero Stunting in Indonesia".

"The participation and role of Dharma Wanita is very important as a push factor," Inge said.

During Soeharto's rule, it was mandatory for the wives of civil servants to join Dharma Wanita. The wives of military and police personnel have equivalent organizations.

Under the New Order, first lady Tien Soeharto was the leader of the women's group. All its members and families were obliged to vote for the ruling Golkar party in elections.

The wives were also required to participate in the PKK, where they formed teams with community leaders and government officials and organized various activities such as child nutrition counseling for mothers. The PKK reached the RT level, where Posyandu (integrated health services posts) were available to help mothers monitor the health of their toddlers.

My three children enjoyed the generosity of these services, which included regular weight checks, free milk, egg and food supplements and basic vaccinations. Severely malnourished or stunted children received special monitoring from nearby Puskemas (community health centers).

The services were provided for free, but this generosity had to be repaid during elections with a vote for Golkar.Following the sweeping reforms in 1998, the government froze Dharma Wanita, which was seen as antidemocratic and a symbol of Soeharto's oppression.

Now, after 25 years, the roles of organizations like Dharma Wanita, which no longer have political affiliations, are more crucial than ever to the fight against stunting in children, which threatens the vision of Golden Indonesia 2045.

The visit to Rumah Anak Sigap convinced me that the power of women will define the future of the nation through their diligent efforts to keep their children strong and healthy, as AT Mahmud wrote in his legendary song.

[The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.]

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2023/09/10/wishing-that-toddlers-sing-i-am-a-healthy-kid-once-again.htm