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Engaging communities to prevent malnutrition in Benin

© UNICEF video
A young child is weighed at Gomparou Health Clinic in Benin’s northern Alibori Department. More than one in three Beninese children under the age of five show signs of chronic malnutrition.

ALIBORI DEPARTMENT, Benin, 14 April 2010 – More than one in three Beninese children under the age of five show signs of chronic malnutrition. In the drier, northernmost part of the country, most families harvest crops for both income and their own consumption, feeding their children whatever is available from this yield.

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“The main cause of malnutrition is ignorance,” said Linata Gbadamassi, a nurse working in the Gomparou Health Clinic in Benin’s northern Alibori Department.“There is not a shortage of food but, rather, mothers don’t use the right ingredients,” she added. “They tend to always give the child plain porridge made of just maize or millet instead of enriching it with soya or other nutritious foods.”

‘A problem of child survival’
The problem is intensified by local myths about food, according to Ms. Gbadamassi. For example, many people believe that if their children eat eggs, they will become thieves. Much discussion and counselling will be needed to change these deep-seated beliefs.

Child malnutrition is also rooted in the unequal power relationship between men and women.

“It is the men who buy the meat and will often eat their share first, leaving whatever is left over for the wife and children,” said Ms. Gbadamassi. 

“Malnutrition is a phenomenon that starts very early in life, in the womb, and its consequences are irreversible,” noted UNICEF Benin Nutrition Officer Anne-Sophie Le Dain.  “What we have here in Benin is a problem of child survival.”

Community-based programme
Reaching parents in Benin – a country of about 9 million people and some 50 languages – has proven to be a challenge. To connect with parents, UNICEF is working with Benin’s Ministry of Health on an innovative, community-based programme to prevent child illnesses related to malnutrition.

© UNICEF video
As part of an innovative community-based programme in Benin, parents are taught to make nutritional porridge for their children.

The approach was first introduced in 2006 in Alibori Department, where malnutrition rates were high. It aims to engage communities, thereby ensuring that children who suffer from malnutrition are identified, and mothers and caregivers are educated about proper nutrition.

“The community is the start and finishing point for whatever is done on nutrition,” said Dr. Severin Tokannou, who has headed the programme in Alibori since it began. “In every village, there is a community liaison worker who is responsible for going door to door to identify the signs.” 

The programme now reaches 80 per cent of the country’s departments and involves a network of 14 health facilities.

Helping children recover

While relying on face-to-face contact to save young children’s lives, the new programme also engages community radio stations to broadcast nutrition information in local languages. In addition, the stations help challenge cultural norms and misperceptions about food.

The community approach has been integrated into the public health system across Alibori Department, providing services where once there were none. Since 2007, almost 7,000 children in Alibori have recovered from severe acute malnutrition.

Ms. Gbadamassi said the programme has had a huge impact. “At first, parents would think their child was sick because of witchcraft and not seek help,” she explained. “But now you see a child who was two years old and not even weighing six kilograms start putting on weight and walking.

“The parents are obviously very happy,” she added. “And you, as a nurse, are happy because you have saved a child’s life.”




UNICEF’s Alex Duval Smith reports in an innovative, community-based programme that aims to prevent child malnutrition in Benin.
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