Prior to the pandemic, a confluence of economic factors had led to very high levels of international and domestic immigration among working age adults, resulting in a much of a generation of young children being left in the care of relatives, particularly grandmothers, according to a study by World Vision.

In a February 28 press release, World Vision noted that the growth of Cambodia’s garment industry, coupled with the rapid economic development of the capital and the long-standing tradition of seeking employment abroad, had driven migration to a degree where hundreds of thousands of rural families have been affected.

“Among them, a growing number of children have seen one or both parents depart their village to seek new opportunities for their families, leaving children in the care of a family member – in most cases, their maternal grandmother,” the statement said.

“Over the years, silently, this phenomenon has been replicated exponentially to the point that according to a study by the International Organisation for Migration in 2019, grandmothers had taken the role of primary caregivers in almost two-thirds – 64 per cent – of households in the country,” it continued.

A World Vision survey in 2020 found that only 67 per cent of respondent grandmothers were aware of five optimal practices for feeding infants and young children while 47 per cent of them engaged in four or more potentially harmful practices which could have negative impacts on the well-being of mothers and children.

Additionally, 30 per cent of grandmothers reported high levels of stress or exhaustion, and 47 per cent had felt depressed at least once in the previous week.

According to the survey, 95 per cent of grandmothers reported believing that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months was beneficial for a baby, but despite this understanding, only 14 per cent of babies under 6 months old being cared for by their grandmothers were exclusively breastfed at the time of survey.

“[The] experience of World Vision’s Nutrition Programme affirms that grandmothers have a significant positive impact on a child’s health and nutritional status with the right knowledge on maternal, newborn, and child care giving, and with a little encouragement, they become agents of change in their families and wider communities,” the report claimed.

World Vision said it “works closely with grandmother groups each day to ensure children are healthy and well-nourished, especially during the first 1,000 days.”

Grana Pu Selvi, nutrition specialist at World Vision International Cambodia, said: “Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life provides appropriate nutrients in the right quantities [and] protects the child from infections and disease. Children who do not receive exclusive breastfeeding are often undernourished and suffer from frequent infections.”

“We want to see that all children, especially the most vulnerable, are well-nourished and healthy. Since grandmothers play such an important role, especially in feeding young infants, we need to provide advice that improves the knowledge of grandmothers and promotes positive behaviours and practices related to the health and well-being of young children,” she said.

World Vision said its ‘Super Granny’ sessions benefit over 1,800 children in the care of grandmothers, with 50 groups including more than 500 grandmas. The NGO operates in over 400 villages in 10 provinces across Cambodia.