Mothers’ groups lead the campaign against malnutrition in South Sudan

These community nutrition volunteers are on the frontlines of UNICEF’s programme to prevent and treat malnutrition among children under-5

By Robin Giri
A woman stands in the middle of a circle of women
UNICEF South Sudan/2022/Joel
29 July 2022

Bazungua, Yambio – Angelina John is a 36-year-old mother of six in Yambio county, and the leader of a mother-to-mother support group. She and her team of mothers teach other parents and caregivers in their communities how to identify and detect malnutrition among their children, the first step in the battle to prevent and save lives of children under-5 threatened by malnutrition.

“Our main job is to inform other mothers about the ill effects of malnutrition. We teach them to monitor the health of their children, and how to use the MUAC tape to see if their children are at risk,” says Angelina.

The mid-upper-arm-circumference (MUAC) tape is a simple colour coded measuring tape that allows ordinary unschooled mothers to measure the circumference of their child’s mid upper arm and to immediately detect whether their child is malnourished or not.

If the reading is at yellow the child is suffering from moderate acute malnutrition and if the reading is at red, then the child is suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

“We always tell mothers to take their children to the primary health care centre here in Bazungua – where they can get treatment for them,” she says.

A young child has the upper arm circumference measured
UNICEF South Sudan/2022/Joel
Mothers are taught how to use a MUAC tape

Severe acute malnutrition is a very serious condition among children under five. If untreated it can lead to more health complications. It can even result in death as the body doesn’t have the strength and the immunity to fight simple illnesses such as diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia.

South Sudan is currently going through a nutrition crisis and malnutrition rates have continued to worsen. More than 300,000 are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2022 which is the highest since 2013.

UNICEF works closely with the Ministry of Health and 38 other NGOs to support 1,145 nutrition centres which provide therapeutic foods and lifesaving medicines to treat common childhood illnesses and other medical supplies.

This is reinforced by the thousands of community health and nutrition workers like Angelina and her compatriots who are trained to detect and refer children to outpatient therapeutic programme centres.

A young child is fed a package of food
UNICEF South Sudan/2022/Joel
A malnourished child being fed with RUTF in Yambio

At the outpatient centres, children are weighed and assessed on the degree of malnutrition and mothers are counselled and provided with therapeutic foods for home-based treatment and assigned follow up visits if the child is found malnourished.

Children suffering from severe acute malnutrition who also have medical complications are admitted to one of the 88 Nutrition Stabilization Centres supported by UNICEF and partners.

These centres are provided with beds and has facilities for providing intravenous solutions for severely dehydrated children, and a registered nurse and a visiting doctor to provide medical care and therapeutic feeding.

A woman stands amongst other seated women in an outdoor setting
UNICEF South Sudan/2022/Joel
Angelina John is a lead mother who trains other women

“We also teach mothers, particularly pregnant and lactating ones how to prepare nutritious and diverse meals from locally available ingredients for themselves. Because when a mother is fed with nutritious foods – then only her body can produce breastmilk for her baby,” says Angelina.

Recent data suggests that only 68 per cent of children in South Sudan are exclusively breastfed during the first six months of their life.  

As a key strategy in the shift from treatment alone to link prevention to treatment, UNICEF and the Ministry of Health are promoting exclusive breastfeeding of infants for six months as a good practice which protects infants and provides them their first “immunization” against common childhood illnesses.

“The nutrition programme relies on these mother-to-mother support groups who are truly on the frontlines to prevent malnutrition and refer malnourished children for treatment. The most noteworthy fact is that they are volunteers and are not paid - and their motivation inspires us,” says Akol Lonyamoi, UNICEF’s Nutrition Officer in Yambio.

In addition to counselling and case finding and referral, these amazing women also maintain vegetable garden on the premises of the Bazungua Primary Health Care Centre. They grow vegetables and share them with other women in their community and also teach others how to grow vegetables in small spaces around their own houses as kitchen gardens.

Preparations of recipes using locally available diverse food items is promoted by these mothers’ group to improve the quality of diets for young children. A nutrient rich and diverse diet leads to optimal nutrition outcomes for children, and ultimately helps to turn the tide against malnutrition.

In South Sudan, UNICEF works closely with Ministry of Health and 38 NGOs to deliver nutrition services to treat malnutrition among children and women.

UNICEF thanks donors such as the European Union, European Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), UK Aid, USAID, Government of Germany through KfW Development Bank, and the Government of Canada for their support to the nutrition programme in South Sudan.