By Rebecca Phwitiko, UNICEF Malawi
In many rural Malawian households, adequate nutritious meals are not readily available. Over the past few years, drought and flooding have also affected food production, reducing the already small and undiversified food portions of the poor.
In a country where more than a million children are malnourished, there are multiple factors related to food insecurity, attitudes, access to appropriate information and poor water and sanitation.
Through provision of nutrition promotion information and other preventive interventions, UNICEF is ensuring that the most affected families have the necessary support to bring up healthier, well-nourished children.
Training volunteers for community engagement
Elletina Dziwitsani is a 35-year-old mother of five from Chalanda village in Dowa district, central Malawi. She takes time out of her own household responsibilities to take care of others in the village. Elletina teaches families the importance of good hygiene and eating nutritious meals.
She also shows women in her village how to spot a malnourished child and together they follow up on such children to ensure that they are getting the right medical attention to deal with malnutrition. Elletina has been trained to help communities prevent malnutrition before it hits, to detect it and support families whose children are malnourished. She keeps a new-born register, making sure new mothers are feeding infants appropriately.
“The chief called for a meeting, assembling all the mothers and pregnant women in the village. We had to elect leaders amongst ourselves and I was elected Cluster leader,” she said.
Elletina teaches a team of 12 other women everything she has learnt, and together they conduct preventive activities in the community. They screen for malnutrition twice a month, going from household to household.
Between December and March most families do not have enough to eat because it’s the start of a new planting season, and the food reserves are running low. Elletina says they are teaching the women to diversify and eat all six food groups but sometimes it’s a challenge for them to afford all food groups on a regular basis.
A UNICEF intervention, supported by the German Government, is changing the story. Mothers and their children are now assured of getting a regular supply of some important food groups. They also have the counsel of trained volunteers like Elletina to guide them on the road to good nutrition.
Promoting livestock farming for better nutrition
Alice Nyamulani is a mother of three children; an eight-year-old, a six-year-old and a 4-month-old baby. Her husband is a farmer, growing mostly maize on their small piece of land. He also does odd jobs around the village and at the nearby trading center, to make ends meet.
“We didn’t always have enough to eat and I worry about my children,” says Alice.
She has received three rabbits which she and two other women are taking care of. They feed the rabbits three times a day, giving them mostly cabbage leaves.
UNICEF, through its partner World Relief, is implementing this project, to improve the nutritional status of children, pregnant women and mothers of under 5 children.
“We engaged agriculture extension officers to teach the women how to take care of the rabbits and prevent some common diseases that affect them. The good thing about rabbits is that they are easy to take care of and reproduce quickly,” explains Mariana Chimphamba, Nutrition Facilitator for World Relief.
The idea is that after the rabbits reproduce they will be passed on to other families, until all selected beneficiaries have their own. The project also teaches mothers how, what and when to feed their children, and tries to dispel some cultural beliefs and practices that influence attitudes about what children can and should eat.
Many people in this village and many other parts of rural Malawi believe that the husband should get the best of every meal prepared. This is understood to be the mark of a good wife, saving the best treats for the man to keep him at home. So, on the rare occasions that they get eggs or fish from the market, he would get most if not all of it while the children and their mother make do with the vegetables.
Alice says she and her friends know better now. “I have learnt that my children need all six food groups to be healthy. Feeding my husband is just as important as feeding my children, who are still growing,” she says.
The programme, whose aim is to improve the nutritional status of children aged 0 to 23 months, also targets pregnant women and mothers of under five children. It integrates water and sanitation to achieve better results.
“There is a close relationship between stunting and poor water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. A well-nourished child may become stunted if exposed to contamination from poor hygiene in the home,” says UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Sangita Jacob Duggal.
UNICEF is working to make good nutrition a reality for the children, families and communities that need it most. The German Government’s support is making it possible for UNICEF and Government of Malawi to provide better nutrition services, including critical linkages to water, sanitation and hygiene as well as agricultural solutions for better nutrition in Dowa and seven other districts.