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OPINION: How women hold the power to end malnutrition in the Sahel

by Peter Gubbels | Groundswell International
Monday, 16 December 2019 07:44 GMT

Women carry boxes of nutritional food delivered by the United Nations World Food Programme (UN WFP), in Rubkuai village, Unity State, South Sudan February 16, 2017. Picture taken February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Under-nutrition prevails because those with the most power to change it have been overlooked

Peter Gubbels is a co-founder of Groundswell International and serves as Director of Action Learning and Advocacy for West Africa. 

The tragedy of the Sahel across West Africa is not simply that high levels of malnutrition exist but rather that they have persisted so long that it has almost become normalised.

The result is that people do not consider malnutrition with a sense of crisis or urgency. It is the “everyday emergency”.

Despite the efforts of the international community, under-nutrition prevails because those with the most power to change it have been overlooked up until now.

Women, as wives and mothers, are the invisible hand that shape a family’s nutrition and diets in the Sahel. Yet, in a region largely reliant on family farming, they are often excluded from decision-making, and deprived of the means to produce food, or earn an income.

Women, as the household caregivers, are often left with scant resources to help feed their families. This has been compounded by severe weather conditions, along with internal conflicts and terrorism, driving food and nutrition insecurity to new heights.

But, studies have found that women, once empowered through land and credit, invest into improving the health, well-being, and education of their families, much more than their male counterparts.

If women across the Sahel had their own land to farm, as well as the knowledge of a diverse and nutritious diet, they would be able to greatly improve the nutrition and health of their families as well as the wider community.

This has never been more crucial. People in the Sahel suffer from some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. Burkino Faso, for example, has the highest rate of childhood anaemia, linked to iron deficiency.

And whilst pregnant and breastfeeding women need one full extra meal a day compared to men, women are often the first to give up food in lean times. They then find themselves unable to fully nourish their unborn baby, or breastfeed their newborn child. This causes another type of child malnutrition, known as chronic, which physically and mentally impairs children for the rest of their lives.

This is why empowering women is so important. Women have a direct role in feeding their families. They must be supported to produce food directly for family consumption or to earn an income to buy nutritious food at the local market.

Agriculture in the Sahel typically relies on women to do around 25 to 40 per cent of the farm work. But, without much discretionary income, secure access to land, seeds, water, tools and animals, and lacking credit and technical training, women can neither invest in their farms, nor food for their families.

Once women have the awareness of a diverse diet, what this means, and how to build one with local foods, they are much more likely to change the way they eat and farm.

We have seen this firsthand. Since 2015, Groundswell has been working in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mali, to equip women to adequately feed their family through farming where initial results are promising.

In Mali, Sahel Eco has been working to encourage the consumption of more nutritious food by giving women ownership of land or promoting home-gardens.

Households are already consuming more nutritionally rich and local food and tree crops like baobab leaves that are rich in vitamin C, moringa leaves, which have more potassium than bananas, or leafy vegetables produced in their home gardens.

These gardens also have a domino effect, inspiring women in other villages, who are encouraged by the tangible results they see – healthy, well-nourished children.

Creating women’s groups is another way to help women share their knowledge about farming practices, healthy diets, and nutritious child feeding practices amongst one another, helping to spread information that echoes across communities.

In Burkina Faso, Association Nourrir Sans Détruire set up 36 savings and credit groups for women across eight villages, engaging all 760 women in nutrition education and improved farming techniques.

Such examples demonstrate the untapped potential to improve Sahelian diets and nutrition by empowering women to make better use of their local resources. By scaling up such efforts both with community support and engagement, and practical support through credit and tools, huge advances in reducing malnutrition are possible.

At the very least, farming families should be able to improve nutrition from their land and locally produced nutrient-rich crops. This, more often than not, starts with women. If she is given the right tools, knowledge and resources to do so, her entire family and the wider community benefit.