Healthy and smart

Iron and folic acid supplements offer adolescent girls a much-needed boost

With reporting by Zaeem Abdul Rahman
Weekly iron and folic acid supplements
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Rahman
10 December 2017

HERAT, Afghanistan, 10 December 2017 — Farzana* is an outgoing and confident student in Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city and the bustling capital of its western province. The 16-year-old enjoys school and works hard, but it hasn’t always been this way. Last year, she went to the doctor to talk about extreme fatigue that was impacting her studies and the overall quality of her life.

“I was always tired and exhausted,” she says. “I felt sleepy during class and didn’t want to gather with my friends.”

Farzana was prescribed iron and folic acid supplements by a doctor but for the young woman’s low-income family — her mother is a housewife and her father is self-employed working different jobs — the cost of the medicine was prohibitively high and they couldn’t afford it.

A few months later, Farzana learned that the Ministries of Education and Public Health planned to start distributing weekly iron and folic acid supplements (WIFS) at her school. The new initiative, which launched in March 2016, now aims to reach some 1.6 million adolescent girls, including nearly 290,000 girls in the western provinces of Herat, Ghor, Farah and Badghis, where the effects of war and drought have taken a serious toll on families’ nutritional status. It is estimated that one in three adolescent girls in Afghanistan are anaemic, and, as in Farzana’s case, the cost of supplementation is a burden many can’t bear.

At Farzana’s school, approximately 1,800 girls are now benefiting from this important nutritional supplement.

“Before I started the tablets, I preferred to be on my own. It was hard to pay attention at school,” Farzana says. “Now I take care to do my lessons and homework, and spend more time with friends.”

Weekly iron and folic acid supplements at school
UNICEF Afghanistan/2017/Rahman
Bahar, in grade 11, gets her iron and folic acid supplements on a weekly basis at her high school in Herat, western Afghanistan.

Dispelling misinformation

When the WIFS programme was introduced at the Mahjuba Herawi Girls School in Herat, most students didn’t know what the supplements were for. Information sessions taught the girls about the importance of iron and folic acid and how they could improve their lives. Farzana’s experience with anaemia led her to become a WIFS ‘champion’, a group of young women at school who volunteer to help families in their community understand why the supplements are so important for their adolescent girls.

But even though key male and female figures in the community (teachers, school management shuras (councils), religious elders, community members and staff members of provincial departments of education) were trained on WIFS distribution before the project began, some families still didn’t understand why their daughters needed the tablets. This is there the WIFS ‘champions’ begin their important work.

“I met these families and told them my story, what the doctor told me, and how these tablets can prevent the harmful effects of anaemia,” Farzana says. “Hearing the facts through a friend of their daughter’s helped convince the parents to let their own daughters take the supplements.”

The added iron and folic acid is also helping girls manage the effects of menstruation, enabling them to perform better at school. Bahar, 16, is in Grade 11 at Kowsar School in Herat. “Since I started taking these tablets weekly, I have felt more comfortable when having my period. I used to feel very sluggish and have more side effects during menstruation, but now I feel much better and fresher.”

Such efforts are sure to benefit from the renewed energy and focus of girls like Farzana and Bahar, whose stories bear testament to the value of this simple yet pertinent support.

*All names have been changed to protect identity