By Christine Nesbitt
A joint EU-UNICEF programme reaches rural communities in Ethiopia to address undernutrition among mothers and children through monitoring, treatment and guidance.
GEMECHIS, Ethiopia, 24 August 2015 – Early in the morning, one-and-a-half-year-old Mikias Asnake laughs as his mother, Meseret Haile, bathes him at home in the Gemechis woreda (district), in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. Meseret is preparing to join a community conversation at the nearby Wolargi health post, to learn how to ensure the health of children and mothers in the community.
Meseret and her son Mikias are among approximately a million children and 600,000 pregnant and lactating women in four African countries (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali and Uganda) targeted by Africa’s Nutrition Security Partnership (ANSP). In Ethiopia, the focus is on 20 woredas in the Amhara, Oromia and Southern Nations and Nationalities Peoples (SNNP) regions. Ethiopia is nearing the end of a four-year national nutrition security programme supported jointly by the European Union and UNICEF, which builds on government-led efforts to reduce the rates of undernutrition among children under 5 years old and mothers.
With a population of more than 30 million people, Oromia is Ethiopia’s largest region, and more than 80 per cent of its residents live in rural areas. Health Extension Worker Binti Mohammed is one of those helping to improve infant and young feeding practices, as well as maternal and adolescent nutrition.
Key aspects of the community-based nutrition programme are monthly growth monitoring and promotion, community conversations, iron folate supplementation for pregnant mothers as well as promoting local complementary food production.
“Before the nutrition programmes started, there was a lack of awareness in the community,” Binti says. “Some people didn’t know they could feed their children well using locally available ingredients.”
Today, the Government’s Heath Extension Programme deploys more than 36,000 health extension workers, who provide community-based health promotion and disease-prevention services, mostly to people in rural areas.
Binti explains that women bring their children to the health post on a monthly basis for growth-monitoring sessions and nutrition counselling. If the child is doing well, Binti encourages the mother to continue feeding her child properly. If the child is moderately underweight or has not gained enough weight since the previous growth-monitoring session, she will counsel the mother on possible causes and solutions. Inadequate household food security, poor child feeding practices, inadequate access to sanitation and safe water, recurring drought and harmful social and traditional practices all contribute to malnutrition in Oromia.
Reflecting on the past situation, Binti notes, “There is a big change. Previously, if their children became malnourished, people would take them to traditional healers and wait until they were close to dying. They never took them to a health facility. Now, since we saved children here at the facility, people have started bringing malnourished children from every village to the health post.”
At the Wolargi Health Post, Meseret attends the dialogue with community members exploring best practices for feeding children in their community, followed by a practical demonstration.
“We started in the morning with a community conversation, and then the health worker showed us how to prepare nutritious food for our children,” she says. “We learned that the porridge should also include vegetables, because they’re good for the child’s health.”
The ingredients of the porridge include wheat, barley, sorghum, oats, lentils, beans, groundnuts, cabbage, milk, egg, potato, carrot, beetroot, iodised salt and oil.
“My plan, starting from today, is to feed my baby in a proper way, and to keep his mind bright, and to make him a good student, to help him have a good status in society in the future,” Meseret says.
Through the community-based nutrition programme, the project supports building the resilience of communities to food insecurity. It is also designed to strengthen the community’s ability to recognise the causes of malnutrition and to take action by making better use of family, community and external support networks. Since 2011, the number of underweight children participating in the programme has been halved.