Breaking a Dangerous Tradition in Indonesia

By Sagita Adesywi, ChildFund Indonesia

Yuliana, a mother of five, lives in far eastern Indonesia in a simple house made with bamboo, tree bark and other wood.

mother and daughter in Indonesia

Yuliana and her daughter at a rumah bulat, or roundhouse, where women in their village stay with their newborn babies for at least a month.

Like many others in her community, Yuliana’s family has a wooden rumah bulat or “roundhouse” 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 dying, but we didn’t dare to 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.”

health care volunteer weighing a child

Yuliana, a local health-care volunteer, weighs a child at her home.

Today, Yuliana is a volunteer with a health project in the village called REACH. ChildFund and UNICEF work in partnership with community-based organizations, 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 the community,” Yuliana notes. “From the training, I understand it is not just about what a bad experience it is, but most importantly how badly it impacts the health of the mother and the baby. I want people here to understand this too.”

As part of her efforts, Yuliana helps the local midwife facilitate counseling sessions at the village 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, another community member. “She visits pregnant mothers regularly and discourages the rumah bulat practices.” It’s difficult to break old habits, though.

“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.”

new mother in Indonesia

Adel (right) was afraid to go against the rumah bulat tradition with her niece, a new mother, but they are performing the ritual in a healthier way.

However, Adel did make some adjustments to the norm. Her niece was confined to a rumah bulat with a bamboo wall that allowed more ventilation than the customary solid wood wall, and Yuliana checked on 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 center. This is 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 the 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 center,” says Dorsila, who, inspired by Yuliana, has also become a community health volunteer.

2 Responses to Breaking a Dangerous Tradition in Indonesia

  • It is a worthy exercise to educate not only the mothers at the time they gives birth to children. Childfund with the assistance of UNICEF should start educating adolescent girls as well and educate the community leaders identifying “Lead Mothers” to help the communities to eradicate misconcepts and rid fears.

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