|© UNICEF video|
|Thousands of mothers queue for food to feed their hungry children, in Niger’s Zinder region.|
By Elies Miller
ZINDER, Niger, 26 October 2005 - Mothers and children waited patiently under the shade of trees, avoiding the burning sun. They had gathered here in hopes of getting a ration of food, from a new feeding programme for villages in the Zinder region – one of the areas hardest hit by Niger’s food crisis.
Once the waiting was over, mothers and children were admitted in small groups to a screening site. Children’s arms were measured to help determine whether they were undernourished. (A measurement called the ‘mid-upper arm circumference’ is a quick and effective way to check nutritional status.)
Those children who were severely undernourished and those with malaria were quickly moved to a makeshift hospital for treatment. Their mothers looked worried and fatigued.
A large majority of the children were at least moderately undernourished. Their mothers received a bag (25 kg) of CBS/UNIMIX (a high-nutrient supplement), 4 litres of oil and a bag of sugar. They lined up to pick up the rations and to have their children’s hands dipped in ink – confirming that they had received their portions.
Afterwards some of them tried to clean their children’s hands with sand, hoping to go through the line for a second portion – and who could blame them?
Crisis not over
After the food distribution was over, the women stayed a while to speak among themselves and to relief workers. Many of them described how truly difficult the past year – the year of the food crisis – had been, or expressed their thankfulness for the good harvest of recent months and for the food rations they had just received, lightening their burden tremendously.
But although the harvest has been good this year, and the children of these mothers will not starve, the crisis in Niger is far from over. There is a shortage of the seed needed to plant new crops next season.
Humanitarian agencies and NGOs working in the Zinder region agree that the problem is structural. The precariousness of the country’s situation is illustrated by the fact that after losing only 12 per cent of its crops in 2004, Niger is recording large numbers of moderately and severely undernourished children. Recovery will not be an easy task.
The number of moderately undernourished children admitted to feeding programmes is increasing daily while the capacities of humanitarian agencies are being stretched to their limits. In some areas of the Zinder region, levels of severe malnutrition have reached as high as 7 per cent among children who have been screened.
About the feeding initiative
The Targeted Supplementary Feeding Initiative in Zinder is a joint effort of Médecins San Frontières (MSF), UNICEF and the World Food Programme. It’s the largest ever village-based supplementary feeding initiative in Niger. Out of a population of 250,000 children, an estimated 45,000 with severe or moderate malnutrition are expected to be treated.
The initiative aims to provide a safety net to protect vulnerable families and children from sinking further into severe undernutrition and to reduce the child mortality rate which is one of the highest in the world (262 per 1,000 live births – source: SOWC).
26 October 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Jane O’Brien reports on the hunger of children in Niger.