Improving the well-being of adolescent girls

Linda receiving her supplements from the deputy headteacher
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Amos Gumulira

By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi

Chilumba Secondary School is located within the hills of Salima, bordering Dedza District. To get to the school, one has to endure a rocky, hilly ride on mountainous terrain that is even more difficult to navigate in the rainy season. The school is in an isolated area, with little activity and far from essential social services such as hospitals.

Linda Khembo is a form 3 student at the school. She is the second born in a family of six children. Her parents sell fat cakes for a living. They do not make enough to take care of the needs of such a large family. From school fees to putting food on the table, Linda’s parents struggle to provide for their children.

For growing children, it is vital that they eat food with all the nutrients in the required amount. The lack of a balanced diet affects a child’s growth as they need to get all the essential nutrients for a healthy body that can also fight diseases. In Malawi one third of adolescent girls suffer from anaemia. To address this, the Government of Malawi, with support from UNICEF, and funding from UK Aid and the Dutch Government, has been providing iron folic acid (IFA) supplements to girls aged 10 to 19.

Linda and thousands of other girls from six districts (Salima, Mangochi, Dedza, Machinga, Lilongwe and Dowa) get their supplements from Government schools, such as Chilumba Secondary School. The supplements boost their iron intake, to prevent anemia and accommodate for the loss of blood when girls are menstruating.

Before Linda started taking the supplements, she suffered a number of side effects during her menstruation. “During my period, I would get drowsy, and pale, and I would sometimes feel weak,” Linda explains. “I started receiving the iron supplements in January 2019. We were told that they are giving us iron to make up for the blood loss from menstrual bleeding. I felt so happy when I heard this because of the problems I used to experience when menstruating.”

Some of the adolescent girls Chilumba Secondary School who receive the supplements
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Amos Gumulira

Distributing the supplements

The deputy headteacher at Chilumba Secondary School Mr. Dzuunde, gives the girls the IFA supplements once a week every Wednesday.  Each girl has a self-compliance card, where they tick after consuming their supplements weekly.

“At first parents were nervous about their children taking the supplements but this changed after we continuously explained the benefits to them. Now the girls are open to taking the supplements and they are enthusiastic about it. They come in large numbers to get their weekly dose,” Mr. Dzuunde explains.

Mr. Dzuunde is the School Health and Nutrition teacher (SHN teacher). “I teach health and nutrition classes every Thursday. In our sessions, I teach children about the six food groups, hygiene, the importance of having backyard gardens to grow nutritious foods and having livestock as an extra source of protein, iron and other nutrients”.

The girls’ families have responded positively to the health and nutrition tips the students get at school. Many of them have started their own gardens, growing tomatoes and different types of vegetables. “Parents are happy with these developments because it is helping them to have nutritious food for their homes, and they even show me their gardens”, Mr. Dzuunde explains enthusiastically.

Out of school girls showing their compliance cards
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Amos Gumulira

UK Aid and Netherlands support to the IFA Supplementation Programme

The Adolescent Iron Folic Acid Supplementation Programme was piloted in six districts in Malawi; Dedza, Machinga, Mangochi, Dowa, Lilongwe and Salima. About 322,525 adolescent girls received IFA tablets in 2019.

With funding from UK Aid, the Malawi Government developed; the multisector adolescent nutrition strategy, Adolescent IFA programme communication materials, monitoring and reporting materials, procurement of IFA supplies, and trained service providers in programme implementation.

In addition, funding from the Netherlands Government provided an additional procurement of IFA supplies in 3 districts (Salima, Mangochi and Dedza), with pilot implementation leveraging on the existing resources to generate proof of concept and create enabling environment. In addition to IFA supplements, other services being provided include de-worming, information and counselling to improve dietary intake, as well as prevention of intestinal worm infestations.

IFA tablets help to improve the girls’ learning capacity, physical work capacity and builds up iron in the body. Both school going and out of school girls are benefitting from the program. Girls who are not in school get their supplements through community-based platforms such as youth-friendly clubs and door to door visits.

In the meantime, Linda wants the IFA supplementation project to continue because of its many benefits. An ambitious girl, she wants to remain healthy, so she can do well in school and achieve her dream of becoming a journalist in future. She performs well in class and is often in the top two of her class. She also happens to be a UNICEF-scholarship recipient which means that her parents do not have to worry about her school fees until she finishes secondary school.

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