IFA supplementation helps girls pull through life
Preventing girls from anemia
Every Wednesday, a stream of adolescent girls at Mpatsa Community Day Secondary School in Phalombe makes a beeline for a nondescript office window to receive iron and folic acid (IFA) supplementation tablets.
On other days, the learners receive the IFA tablets under an iron-roofed open shade. For learners such as Colleta Kamulanje and Joyce Bonjesi, the place where they receive the pills doesn’t matter.
“During menstruation, girls tend to lose a significant amount of blood. However, there are IFA tablets available that can help maintain the blood supply in the body. If girls do not take these IFA tablets, they may feel tired easily during their periods. I used to experience it before I started taking IFA tablets,” says Colleta as she pops a IFA tablet into her mouth and washes it down with a glassful of water.
Joyce agrees, but she also emphasises the importance of eating a balanced diet, especially among female teenagers.
“These IFA tablets benefit us a lot, particularly during our menstrual cycles. It is crucial for girls our age to take this medication. Prior to starting, I used to encounter muscle and stomach cramps every time I menstruated. However, those discomforts are now a thing of the past. I just need to maintain taking them and supplement it with good nutrition for my proper growth,”
With financial support from KFW through UNICEF Malawi, the Hunger Project has been implementing an IFA supplementation project in Phalombe since December 2020 by which in-school and out-of-school adolescent girls from 10 to 18 years have been provided with weekly iron and folic acid supplements in order to help prevent anaemia.
Chikondi Chikolowa, a health surveillance assistant at Mpatsa Health Centre, explains that despite most girls start mensurating at 12 years, the inclusion of 10 and 11 came out of the recognition that substantially more start earlier.
“We also realise that proper nutrition in most households is a challenge, hence the IFA comes in as a foodsupplement to prevent the girls from anaemia,” she says.
According to Esther Nyundo, who is the Field Nutrition Officer for the Hunger Project Malawi in the area of Traditional Authority Nkhumba in Phalombe, the initiative excludes teenagers who are currently residing at home but have already entered parenthood.
At Mpatsa CDSS, Daisy Chisale fulfils two distinct roles — that of a Mathematics teacher and the School Health and Nutrition (SHN) teacher. As the SHN teacher, she is tasked with maintaining the hygiene and sanitation standards of the school's facilities, as well as overseeing the nutrition of the students. As part of her responsibilities in the latter role, she provides IFA tablets to adolescent girls learners aged 10- 19 years.
“At the beginning of each term, we conduct a health talk where, among others, we tell the learners about the advantages of IFA, and we also emphasize to the leaners that taking IFA it’s not compulsory,” Chisale explains.
However, convincing the female learners to take the IFA over the long term has proved to be uphill task. Chisale finds the adoption of IFA among learners at the school to be discouraging, as only approximately 20 per cent of female students receive the pill on a regular basis. However, she believes that this is due to misconceptions surrounding the IFA.
“Many people believe that these pills are for family planning, but this is not true. A lot of girls in their first year of school take them, but older female students often convince them otherwise and they, too, stop taking them,” she states.
Despite being all too familiar with the problem, Nyundo holds onto hope that it will eventually be overcome with time and effort.
“IFA tablets were associated with a lot of myths. Some parents were not eager to allow their children to take the pills because they believed they are family planning method so that their children shouldn't give birth. But through the meetings, involvement of village chiefs and other influential groups in our communities, the uptake is picking up,” Nyundo says.