Rising food prices in Mali escalate undernutrition amongst children
By Guy Degen
SIKASSO, Mali, 3 June 2010 – In the far south of Mali, one of the country’s main agricultural areas, the Sikasso region, is rich in fertile soil. But despite the region’s capacity to feed its people, the children of Sikasso are suffering from alarmingly high rates of undernutrition.
More than 15 per cent of children under five years of age in Sikasso are undernourished – well above the international warning level of 10 per cent. In 2009, nearly 40,000 cases of children suffering from acute malnutrition were reported in the region.
Support from European Union
To observe conditions firsthand, a joint mission by UNICEF and the European Union recently toured Sikasso. UNICEF Representative in Mali Marcel Rudasingwa and the European Union’s Head of Delegation in Mali, Giacomo Durazzo, led the mission.
The EU has provided €6.8 million from its ‘Food Facility’ funds to support UNICEF’s nutrition programme in Mali. The Food Facility initiative aims to help monitor nutrition among children and women, and manage the treatment of acute and severe acute malnutrition.
“The partnership between the European Union and UNICEF,” said Mr Rudasingwa, “has been a model in Sikasso at two levels: firstly, addressing the problem – offering a lot of families and children access to treatment against malnutrition – but at the same time, emphasizing the role of communication and information for changing behaviour in communities.”
Pressure of rising prices
Undernutrition is one of the main contributing causes of infant deaths in the developing world. Despite a decline in mortality among children under five years of age in Mali, the rate remains high. It is estimated that nearly one in five children born here will not reach his or her fifth birthday.
Staple foods have steadily become more expensive in Mali. Between 2006 and 2008, the cost of rice increased by nearly 40 per cent in Sikasso. Rising food prices often force families to make difficult choices about the quality and quantity of food to feed their children.
What’s more, undernutrition not only hinders the early development of children but also affects the country’s economic development.
“Supporting a change in attitude; in the cultural behaviour of people, in eating habits, in the role of women and the management of child nutrition – all these factors require a lot of effort by the government, as well as technical and financial partners,” said Mr. Durazzo of the EU. “You cannot change this in just a few days.”
Along with supporting preventive measures such as de-worming, vitamin A supplements and vaccinations, UNICEF and its partners are supporting the Malian Government’s efforts to promote exclusive breastfeeding of infants and young children – and to collect accurate data on child nutrition for better analysis and decision-making.
Providing information on nutrition, and behaviour and attitudes towards nutrition, is vital. Families in Mali are being urged to bring their children to local health clinics as early as possible to detect signs of undernutrition.
UNICEF is also supporting a national nutrition forum and working with journalists to enhance their knowledge of the issues involved.
Reversing the trend
“All stakeholders need to contribute,” said the Regional Director of Health in Sikasso, Dr. Teme Sodyougo. “Because if we try to limit ourselves solely to health activities, then you’re only reaching those already suffering. But you have to act beforehand. You need to be pre-emptive, and that’s a multi-sector fight.
Undernutrition affecting children in Sikasso remains a paradox in the nation’s breadbasket. UNICEF is confident that international partners, working with Mali’s health authorities, can help reverse the trend and offer children a better start in life.