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Field diary: A safety net for the most vulnerable families in drought-prone Tigray, Ethiopia

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2011/Jensen
Members of the Community Care Coalition in the village of Maynebri in the drought prone Tigray region of Ethiopia. This is one of some 600 Coalitions that have been formed to help provide the most vulnerable in the communities – including orphans, the elderly and those who are sick – with a home-grown safety-net.

By Malene Kamp Jensen

MEKELE, Ethiopia, 22 September 2011 - The town of Mekele in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which borders Eritrea, is only an hour’s flight from the capital, Addis Ababa, but in some ways, it’s a world away.

War, drought and poverty have left their mark on Tigray. When you speak with people here, you find that most of them have a family member, friend or neighbour who lost a loved one in the famine of 1984 and 1985, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

But the story of Tigray, and the rest of Ethiopia, is also one of hope and perseverance and amazing efforts to help ensure that not only hunger, but also poverty, can one day become a part of the past. With support from UNICEF, international donors and other partners, the Government of Ethiopia has set up a social safety net and health extension programme providing support to the country’s most vulnerable women and children.

Community-based programmes

Today, amidst drought, increased food prices and an influx of refugees from neighbouring countries affected by drought and conflict, the safety net is stretched. Yet as Tigray helps illustrate, government and innovative community-led efforts are saving and improving lives.

In the village of Agulae, some 35 km from Mekele, we make a stop at a UNICEF-supported health centre where women bring their children for routine medical and nutritional check-ups. The facility provides severely malnourished children with therapeutic food in the form of a vitamin-enriched, peanut-based paste that they can have at home or, in cases of infection or other complications, in hospital.

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2011/Jensen
Mehret credits the local Community Care Coalition and a nearby, UNICEF-supported health post with helping to save the life of her youngest child in a small farm community in drought-prone Tigray, Ethiopia.

The health centre works in tandem with community-based nutrition programmes – also supported by UNICEF – in which health extension workers and volunteers go from village to village to educate women about how best to keep their children healthy.

Through these programmes, mothers learn how to cook nutritious meals even when money and food are tight. They also learn the importance of exclusively breastfeeding their babies for the first six months of life.

Health posts proliferate

A mother named Kassech, 30, has come to the centre in Agulae with her three-month-old son, Kidest, for a routine check. She says the health centre and the nutrition programmes have helped keep her three children healthy.

“I know to only breastfeed for the first six months and that I need to boil water before giving it to my family,” she says. Judging by the sturdy looks of her baby, the knowledge is paying off.

Driving further into the countryside, we make several stops in mountainous, rural Tigray, taking roads that seem to be used more by camels and cattle than cars. Yet in the vicinity of practically every little village there is a health post, established over the past several years by the government with UNICEF’s help, to make sure that parents can quickly get health and nutritional support for their children in this food-insecure region.

The health posts also provide an integrated package of interventions comprising vitamin A supplements, insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria, routine vaccinations, ready-to-use therapeutic food, growth monitoring for children and prenatal care for pregnant women.

Community Care Coalitions

The communities themselves are taking additional steps to ensure that their safety nets are in place. Throughout Tigray, local groups known as Community Care Coalitions – or CCCs – are providing the poorest households with small amounts of cash or in-kind help.

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2011/Jensen
Kassech, 30, brings her three-month-old son the UNICEF-supported health centre in Agulae village, in the drought-prone Tigray region of Ethiopia.

This assistance can take the form of grain, school uniforms, home visits to care for the sick, elderly and orphans, or help with ploughing, weeding and harvesting fields.

The CCCs are now being formalized. In August, the government, UNICEF and other partners launched a pilot social-protection initiative through which funds provided by the

Bureau of Labour and Social Affairs are given to beneficiaries identified by the coalitions.

A lifeline, and hope

Overall, these efforts are paying off. A woman named Mehret, whose husband is disabled and unable to work, credits the local CCC and a nearby health post with saving the life of the youngest of her two children.

A few weeks ago, when her three-year-old daughter suddenly got a high fever and showed signs of distress, Mehret recalls, she was able to quickly reach the health post 6 km away and get immediate care. In addition, her family receives a small sack of grain and 240 birr (about US$15) each month from the coalition to help keep them fed and healthy.

Mehret says that life is still hard. But at least she has a lifeline and hope that with continued support, the future might be brighter for her children.



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