Education is key to reducing malnutrition rates in Somalia

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Somalia's rates of malnutrition are historically high, but education can help to tackle the problem. WFP's nutrition programme is not only helping women & children recover from undernutrition, but also teaching mothers how to protect themselves and their families against it.

Young women sit on a rug peering at the pictures, listening to a health worker describe measures – such as breastfeeding practices and washing dishes with clean water – that will help prevent malnutrition in their children, and themselves.

The lesson is taking place at a WFP-supported nutrition centre in Mogadishu where children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, as well as pregnant and nursing women, are treated for moderate acute malnutrition. Here, under WFP’s Targeted Supplementary Feeding programme, they get rations of ready-to-use nutrient-dense food supplements, which, together with their regular diet, should restore them to better health and keep them healthy. But this will only happen if they are given and follow certain basic guidelines.

Malnutrition is caused not only, and sometimes not even primarily, by a lack of food: World-wide, even obese people can be malnourished because they don’t the right kinds of food.

In Somalia, even when families eat enough, their diets may be lacking in certain nutrients, so the most vulnerable in those families can still end up being malnourished, particularly young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers who need a high intake of vitamins and minerals. In addition, basic health and education services in most of the country are severely lacking, even non-existent. These can affect behavior, which also plays a significant role in the onset of malnutrition.

Somalia’s rates of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) have historically been very high, hovering around 15 percent, which the World Health Organisation emergency level. To reduce those chronically high malnutrition rates, tackling the issue of behaviour is vital.

“It’s wouldn’t be much good merely providing nutrition supplements if women still don’t understand what’s causing malnutrition, because it would only be a temporary solution. So what we are doing is giving them basic but crucial instruction in hygiene and breastfeeding to help them prevent it in the future,” says MarcAndre Prost, Head of Nutrition for WFP Somalia.

Every time the women come to the nutrition centre for a check-up and to get more of the specialized food, they take part in a lesson.

Internally displaced women and young children make up a large proportion of those registered for the supplementary feeding because they are especially vulnerable to high rates of malnutrition.

“The situation of IDPs is mostly [poor] because they don’t have all services. They don’t have proper sanitation, proper hygiene, proper health but also proper shelter. ” says Hashim Aden Jelle, a Programme Officer with one of WFP’s local partners, SORRDO.

The good news is that over the past 18 months since the onset of famine, there have been big improvements as the rates of malnutrition in Somalia’s capital have fallen dramatically. Among internally displaced children, the GAM rate has dropped from a devastating 45 percent and currently stands at around 16 percent. Among the urban poor in Mogadishu, that rate has dropped even further to 10 percent.

For mothers who have been largely without the knowledge of the causes of malnutrition, the education at the supplementary feeding centres is as important as receiving the food. It reduces the chances of their children relapsing into malnutrition, and offers the hope is that this knowledge will also be passed forward to future generations.