At a glance: Niger

UNICEF survey reveals continued high malnutrition among Niger’s children

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© UNICEF video
A new survey reveals that more than 15 per cent of all children in Niger continue to suffer from acute malnutrition.

By Sarah Crowe

MARADI, Niger, 21 December 2005 – This year, images of the gaunt eyes and scrawny bodies of Niger’s children shocked the world into action, taking relief supplies to the starving children. But the urgent need for food remains. A new survey conducted by UNICEF, the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and the government of Niger reveals that more than 15 per cent of all children in Niger continue to suffer from acute malnutrition.

After the crop failure and locust plagues of 2004, the country yielded a good harvest in late 2005. The markets were overflowing with a great abundance of food - manioc, millet, sorghum, coconuts, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, dried chilies.

However, most of this food was sold off to neighbouring Nigeria to pay back debts incurred during the food crisis, trapping Niger in a vicious cycle of dependency and debt.

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© UNICEF video
Women of Zinder, Niger line up with their babies to receive food.

Men are centre of Nigerian families

In the village of Tsaki, outside Maradi, UNICEF has set up a cereal storage bank as a stock for the villagers in the lean months ahead. Herds of goats are also given to families to ensure mothers and infants have access to proteins like milk and cheese.

UNICEF has also set up therapeutic feeding centres and community-based interventions, which have treated some 300,000 children. The centres have distributed more than 4,000 tons of UNIMIX porridge, over 42 tons of therapeutic milk, and 166 tons of Plumpy’nut, a vitamin-rich peanut paste. But even with these efforts, some cultural obstacles still prevent UNICEF from reaching all children. In Nigerian society, men control the family decisions, even ones as basic as whether or not a child should be treated for malnutrition. Rahamou Seidou is in her thirties and is pregnant with her seventh child, an average number for Nigerian families. Her husband runs the mill that UNICEF installed in the village. Like most husbands here he is the centre of the family.

“My husband is responsible for everything in the home,” said Rahamou. “He has to solve all the problems concerning our children. When he travels, he tries to work out how much we’ll need and leaves the right amount for us to live on. If there is not enough it can be a problem and I have to go to my in-laws.”

Dr. Kourna Mamadou Hama, a pediatrician at Niamey Hospital confirms men’s superior status in Nigerian society. “A father can forbid his wife to take their child to health care, even if the child is sick,” he said.

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© UNICEF video
A malnourished boy waits to be treated at a clinic run by Médicins Sans Frontières, Maradi, Niger.

Poor feeding practices

Cultural factors and social behaviours, such as inadequate feeding practices, have greatly impacted the country’s malnutrition.

In Niger, few mothers exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, or stop breastfeeding when they’re pregnant with a second child, abruptly weaning their babies.

Taboos about certain foods also complicate the development of healthy feeding habits. “In certain societies, eggs are forbidden for a child because it’s believed he’ll become a thief. Fish is also forbidden so in fact essential nutrients are not allowed in the diet,” said Dr. Hama.

“The other problem is that the market is flooded with artificial milk which generally is meant for adults. This milk is not suitable for children. The rural women imitate the practices of the wealthier women in the city, buy the milk, and give it to the child,” added Dr. Hama.

UNICEF and partners are also working hard to change poor nutritional habits through education and advocacy, and by constantly evaluating the nutritional state of Niger’s children.

As 2005 coming to an end, humanitarian organizations working in Niger are gearing up to make sure that 2006 is not marked with the same images of starving children, and to reverse the trend of under-nourishment among the country’s children.


 

 

Video

21 December 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports on how Niger’s children continue to suffer from malnutrition.

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