“Imagining malnutrition is one thing but beholding a malnourished child is another”.

 

MALNUTRITION

is a condition that occurs when there is an imbalances in the type and proportion of nutrients in individuals, due to consistent over-consumption or lack of consumption and absorption of the right amount of food.  Globally, malnutrition contributes to almost half of all child deaths —more than 3 million children each year.  Children in Sub-Saharan Africa are 14 times more likely to die before the age of 5 than children in developed regions and in Nigeria about 52% of these deaths result from malnutrition.  This makes malnutrition the greatest cause of children's death above all other causes put together.      

In the length of time that it takes you to read this article, a child is dying of malnutrition somewhere in my home country – most likely in one of its conflict-affected areas.  The impact of malnutrition, particularly in the first one thousand days of a child’s life, is dire even if it is not fatal.  Many infants and children who suffer from malnutrition are affected by stunting, recurrent infections or chronic diseases, low immunity, and late development.

My deep interest in this subject in rural communities - with particular focus on the needs of poor women and mothers - was sparked when I was posted to a rural community in Northern Nigeria during my mandatory National Youth Service in 2013.  Whilst there, I witnessed a high prevalence of malnutrition among children under the age of five years as a result of poor feeding practices, including inadequate or incorrect breastfeeding and lack of access of nutritious foods or a balanced diet.  In these communities, every misfortune was more pronounced: the wide gender inequality gap between men and women as a result of poverty, early and forced marriage, low levels of education, lack of access to needed sexual and reproductive health services, and restrictive cultural practices all ran rampant, even as families were starving.

Aisha was one of the teenage nursing mothers I met.  A girl better suited to a classroom than suffering the consequences of a failing health system and unsupportive community, Aisha battled to provide her malnourished child adequate sustenance, even as her husband neglected his promise to provide for them.  In theory, Aisha knew that women and girls were capable of delivering much more than babies, but an endless scope of potential just waiting to be optimized.  But she had an obligation to her baby, and though every child deserves a healthy start to life including appropriate physical, mental and emotional development, hers required a great deal more effort to avoid a darker fate.

Sadly, Aisha and her malnourished child represent just one of the millions of stories of women and girls around the world who face the consequences of malnutrition, poverty, gender inequality, and child marriage.

My encounter with Aisha her child - and the knowledge of so many other voiceless children who die of malnutrition daily - I initiated the 1000daysplus Project, which serves as a platform to raise awareness about malnutrition and its consequences on the health and wellbeing of women and children.  The initiative uses education to promote adequate breastfeeding practices, growth monitoring, complementary foods, and family planning methods as well as the use of low cost, enriched and readily available food materials within rural communities that can combat malnutrition, such as groundnut, crayfish, millet, and soya beans.

To effectively combat malnutrition, there is the need to rethink intervention by focusing on adequate use of nutritious and readily-available community resources, in conjunction with educating and empowering women to be less dependent on their spouse.  These practices are invaluable in breaking the cycle of poverty, and assist in removing the blanket of pervasive cultural practices that limit the freedom of women and girls across regions of the country, whilst strengthening community support for women and children by engaging and involving men in conversations around gender, health, and wellbeing.  1000daysplus also encourages the practice of exclusive breastfeeding up until six months of life, and advocates for increased access to family planning services.  It is our belief that the Nigerian government should prioritize nutrition programs, increase funding to combat malnutrition, and work more expansively with other sectors and international organizations to foster a multisectoral approach to tackling nutrition crisis in Nigeria. 

In this Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) era, we should all be engaged in developing innovative solutions and implementing programs that will translate the SDGs and other various global nutrition targets to real-time and measurable impact in the lives of women and children.

The question is not whether we can end all forms of malnutrition in our time, but whether we have enough courage and compassion to scale up the gains we have already made to help mothers live a healthier life, achieve their dreams, and redefine their children’s story of survival.

To quote Kul C. Guatam: "the world produces enough food to feed every man, woman and child on earth. Hunger and malnutrition therefore is not due to lack of food alone, but are also the consequences of poverty, inequality and misplaced priorities."

 

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