Volunteer health workers on the mountain top

Fritzie Rodriguez
Barangay health workers hike across the mountainous barangays of Atok, Benguet, just to reach out to families

VOLUNTEERS. Barangay health workers (BHW) in Atok, Benguet often climb up mountainous barangays just to visit families in need of health and nutrition assistance. All photos by Fritzie Rodriguez/Rappler.com

BENGUET, Philippines – It had just stopped raining.

The cool air permeated sweaters and sunk into one’s skin. Steps were small and careful; paths were slippery and inches away from cliffs.

She hiked with a heavy bag on her back, while her friends carried weighing scales and wooden height boards.

The women had a long day ahead of them. It was a long trek.

Lily Mayos has been travelling across Atok, Benguet – mostly on foot –since 1985. At 18, she was the youngest barangay health worker (BHW) then.

Now 47, Lily continues to do what she does best.

“Nagbabahay-bahay kami, bumibisita sa mga pamilya para tanungin sila tungkol sa kalusugan nila. At magbigay na rin ng impormasyon sa kanila,” Lily said. (We go house-to-house, visiting families to ask them about their health. We also give them information.)

Volunteers

Accredited BHWs function as volunteer health educators, primary healthcare providers, and community organizers.

They not only stay in the barangay health stations, but also go out to the field.

Unlike midwives who get a salary of around P22,000 ($506*) a month, BHWs in Atok only receive a travel allowance of around P150 ($3) per day, according to Lily.

“Noong 1970sP175 ($4)/day lang sweldo namin pero lumaki na rin,” said Emilia Cueves, Lily’s colleague and a midwife in Atok. The allowance of BHWs, however, did not increase.

“Renta sa sasakyan P300 one way; P600 balikan. Kaya madalas, naglalakad na lang kami,” she said. (Car rental is $7 one way; $14 round trip. So usually, we just walk.)

Often times, BHWs would have to spend their own money for food and travel.

“Minsan, wala pang kalsada.” (Sometimes, there aren’t even roads.)

Sometimes BHWs cross paths with young children who also walk around 30 minutes from home to school. They walk them home.

BHWs get additional allowance depending on the day’s activity. Since the LGU runs on a limited budget, it cannot provide BHWs transportation services.

BHWs across the country do not receive the same amount of compensation; rates depend on LGUs. This is despite the country’s law ensuring benefits for BHWs, such as hazard and subsistence allowances, free legal services, and loan access.

Lily is a mother to 9 children. She had her first child at age 18; her youngest just turned 9 this year.

“Wala akong suweldo, so sa agrikultura kami nakasalalay,” she said. (I don’t have a salary, so we rely on agriculture.)

She and her husband are hired by landlords to work on farms.

When asked how she managed to stay as a BHW for almost two decades, Lily simply said, “Dahil sa komunidad.” (Because of the community.)

Nutrition awareness

During home visits, BHWs meet parents who lack knowledge on proper nutrition and childcare practices.

Some parents feed their children the same thing every day. “Kung patatas, patatas lang. Kung kaning may asukal, ‘yun lang. ‘Yung iba once a week lang nakakabili karne, ‘yung iba hindi pa,” Lily shared.

(If [feed them] only potatoes, then it’s just potatoes. If it’s just rice with sugar, then that’s it. Others can only buy meat once a week; others can’t even buy it.)

These families suffer from nutrient deficiencies.

Pati ang ibang BHW hindi ‘yan alam dati. Ngayon-ngayon lang namin talaga naintindihan [ang]  stunting,” Lily explained. (Even other BHWs don’t know that. We only truly understood stunting recently.)

Local health workers and BHWs were trained by the World Food Programme in 2013, in an effort to empower the Atok LGU in terms of preparing and responding to issues of hunger and food insecurity.

“BHWs should also be trained so that they can properly explain health concepts to the public,” Dr Demetria Bongga, nutrition expert and former UP College of Home Economics dean, advised.

If more BHWs are well-trained, more families can be trained by them as well.

Almost all of the BHWs in Atok are middle-aged women. Some would wonder how these women have been able to manage such physically taxing tasks.

Kahit walang kapalit, ginawa namin ito para sa kalusugan ng aming kapitbahay at ng mga bata. ‘Yun ang importante,” Lily said. (Even without getting anything in return, we do this for the health of our neightbors and the children That’s what’s important.)  Rappler.com

*$1 = P43.5

Does your community also have BHWs? Tell us what your LGU is doing. Do you have other creative solutions on how we can help fight hunger? Send your stories and ideas to move.ph@rappler.com. Be part of the #HungerProject.