The State of the World's Children 1998: Focus on Nutrition

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Panel 12

Women in Niger take the lead against malnutrition

Photo: Long hours spent carrying water and fuel and other arduous work drastically reduce women's time to care for their children. Cooperative efforts help reduce the burden. Members of an agricultural cooperative in Niger build a terrace to prevent soil erosion.

Better seeds and fertilizer, a diesel-powered mill and two donkey carts: With these modest improvements, women in Kwaren Tsabre, a village in central Niger, are lessening their workloads and beginning to overcome the widespread malnutrition threatening their children.

The problems seemed intractable just a few years ago. Over half the young children in the village of 680 inhabitants were underweight, and many showed signs of serious vitamin A deficiency-which can lead to blindness and death.

Progress is being made thanks to a close partnership between the community and district-based government agents, founded on the people's own assessment and analysis of their situation. The problems were acute: As in many villages in the heart of the Sahel region in West Africa, Kwaren Tsabre experienced chronic shortages of staple foods; diets lacked richness and diversity; women were grossly overworked and had little access to education and information; and health services were remote and often of poor quality.

Because women were most seriously and directly affected, it was necessary to put them at the centre of decision-making and have them benefit from the new initiatives. A women's group - the Village Wo men's Committee - was formed, with members trained by government agents in the district. The first step, as Zouera, the first President of the Committee, explained, was to identify actions that could bring about measurable improvements in nutrition.

"We realized that because our workdays were so long - between 14 and 17 hours - we couldn't care for our children as well as we wanted to," she said. Getting a loan for a diesel mill to relieve the women of the arduous task of hand-pounding sorghum and millet was one response. Another was to purchase two donkey carts to reduce the hours spent carrying wood and water. Both mill and carts save time and generate income: The villagers of Kwaren Tsabre and their neighbours from miles around agreed to pay modest fees to grind grain and use the carts.

With technical help, better irrigation and improved seeds and fertilizer, staple crop yields have nearly tripled and new vitamin A-rich foods are also being produced, including amaranth and baobab leaves. The women incorporated these vitamin A sources and small amounts of oil into their usual meals and soon began noticing a decrease in night-blindness (a symptom of vitamin A deficiency) among their children. Women in neighbouring villages have reported that night-blindness has also been reduced among pregnant women.

Zouera and her colleagues in the Committee also decided, in consultation with government technical staff, to set up a cooperative cereal bank. This bank purchases and stores grain safely after the harvest and gives poor families a place to buy grain at reasonable prices during pre-harvest seasons, when they cannot afford the market price.

In a short time, the cereal bank paid for itself and even turned a profit. "With this money we're subsidizing other activities, such as the distribution of peanut butter as a complementary food for very young children who are still breastfeeding," Zouera said. The Committee also gives a small cash bonus to the women who supervise the regular growth monitoring of children. The monitoring enables women to see for themselves what is happening with their children, and they can use the information to analyse and act on problems in their own homes and community.

Children's malnutrition rates in Kwaren Tsabre have fallen by 10 percentage points in a short time between 1995 and 1996. And this is only the beginning. Poor-quality and inaccessible health services are still a problem and an impediment to further gains against malnutrition.

But the women of Kwaren Tsabre now know that they have the tools and a process for addressing even that difficult problem with the help of their partners. Multiply the achievements of Kwaren Tsabre by the 326 villages across the Maradi Province of Niger into which this programme has spread, and one begins to see victory emerging in the age-old battle against child malnutrition.

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