Mother Volunteers: A community-led approach to promoting mental and psychosocial wellbeing of Rohingya mothers in humanitarian setting


By Atiya Rahman and Nazrana Khaled

“In the initial days of the displacement, we found women, mothers, in various states of mental distress – family conflict, flashbacks and trauma from witnessing killings. They didn’t have access to adequate food, they couldn’t sleep properly and had no proper roof over their heads. Worst was that there were countless victims who had faced sexual violence in their own country, and children were being born in the camps every day. The situation was dire and any intervention to address this would need to include these newborns to ensure their growth, development and bonding between mother and child. We needed to address mothers’ post- and ante-partum depression too. We were thinking of an intervention that could address all of these factors.” – Management, Humanitarian Play Lab

Fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar, the Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs) -Rohingyas, entered Bangladesh from August of 2017. The immense trauma the Rohingya population had witnessed and personally experienced meant that they were in dire need of mental and psychosocial services. The children and women, especially, were particularly vulnerable. Along with other stakeholders, BRAC started providing a variety of services, one of which being psychosocial services, to the Rohingya women and children.

In March 2019, as members of a research team at BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health (BRAC JPGSPH), we first started working on a process documentation study under the project of BRAC Humanitarian Play Lab (HPL) with Rohingya mothers and children in the camps of Cox’s Bazar. The BRAC HPL is a play-based curriculum developed by the BRAC Institute of Educational Development (BRAC IED) that is implemented for children 0–6 years old, inside Child Friendly Spaces (CFS), a safe and secure place for children in emergency settings. The HPL model is run for three age cohorts – 0–2, 2–4, and 4–6. The first cohort is reached through a home-based (HB) intervention which is an early stimulation model conducted with pregnant women and mothers of children under 2 years of age. Mothers and mothers-to-be are provided with counselling on childcare, mental health, parent-child relationship and the importance of play in Early Childhood Development (ECD) by trained women from the community known as Mother Volunteers (session facilitators). Mother Volunteers are responsible in providing counselling on childcare, mental health, parent-child relationships and the importance of play in ECD.

Women (accompanied by their toddlers) participate in group and individual sessions on a regular basis to address their need for a healthy family and to keep them sound mentally. We have observed that they are able to talk about their daily life struggles, relationship issues, their trauma, hardship and other concerns with the Mother Volunteers. As such, home based sessions are serving as a space for mothers to ventilate their issues and concerns and heal from them. Sessions also educate mothers on negative thoughts and feelings and teach coping strategies to deal effectively.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic hitting Bangladesh in early 2020, these services to Rohingya mothers have not been stopped. Rather, a one-to-one tele-conversation has been developed as an alternative to HPL to reach out to mothers individually. This telecommunications model, known as Pashe Achhi (‘beside you’) has been designed and implemented from April 2020 to July 2021 by the BRAC IED. It has been designed as a 20-minute tele-conversation consisting of both tele-counseling and tele-learning components. Every frontline service provider, including Mother Volunteers, has been trained to deliver these calls in the most efficient way possible.

Nurunnahar (pseudonym), 30, is a Rohingya Mother Volunteer working for BRAC Humanitarian Play Lab (HPL). She has been with the organization since January 2018 and has served countless Rohingya mothers just like herself. Below, we hear from Nurunnahar regarding her experience holding sessions with Rohingya mothers over the phone:

“Previously, we held meetings with 10 mothers altogether; everyone sat down and I could see their faces and get acquainted with them. Talking face to face is helpful as I could make them understand everything very easily. It is also easier to bond with someone when you can see their face.

Now, due to the virus, we can’t go anywhere. During Coronavirus, it is better to speak on the phone. I tell mothers that if I go to your home, then I can catch the virus from you or you could catch it from me. This is how I make them understand. (Talking on the phone) is more time consuming but mothers feel better if we can speak to them individually.

I have never spoken to people over the mobile phone in this way before. The Para-counsellor Apas have trained us and taught all of this. One must not go out during the pandemic, maintain three-foot distance from other people and wear a mask when going outside; these are the messages we tell mothers. We tell the pregnant women to go for check-ups, we tell mothers to play with their putu (young child) so that they too can remain happy. Mothers are very happy when we call, some of them even initiate the calls to us if they need to.

In Burma, we did not have any type of work of this sort available to us, we used to stay at home all the time. After coming to this country, we were able to learn many good things and also teach it to other people. If I hadn’t received the training, I could not be able to speak this well.”

Like Nurunnahar, 256 mother volunteers are still serving in 32 Rohingya camps during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their fighting spirit and dedication to serving their community at this difficult juncture is commendable.

This blog post was co-authored by Atiya Rahman, Senior Research Fellow at BRAC JPGSPH and Nazrana Khaled, Deputy Coordinator at BRAC JPGSPH. The Principal Investigator of the project mentioned is Professor Dr Kaosar Afsana. The contents of this write-up are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the BRAC IED.



BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health

BRAC JPG School of Public Health, Bangladesh tackles global health challenges affecting disadvantaged communities through Education Training Research & Advocacy