…With half of stunting in children under 2 developing during pregnancy and before six months, new global report raises the alarm on the need to invest in essential nutrition programmes for adolescent girls and women

By: Rahmatullah Mahmud
A health worker addressing people
UNICEF/UN0725053/Apochi Owoicho

The number of adolescent girls and women aged 15-49 years who are undernourished has soared from 5.6million since 2018 to 7.3 million in 2021 in Nigeria, which is among the 12 hardest hit countries by the global food and nutrition crisis., according to a new global report released by UNICEF today.

The 12 countries – including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen – represent the epicentre of a global nutrition crisis that has been increased by recent impacts of COVID-19 and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and ongoing drought, conflict, and instability in some countries.

Undernourished and Overlooked: A Global Nutrition Crisis in Adolescent Girls and Women – issued ahead of International Women’s Day – warns that the ongoing crises, aggravated by unending gender inequality, are deepening a nutrition crisis among adolescent girls and women that had already shown little improvement in the last two decades.

“This nutrition crisis is pushing millions of mothers and their children into hunger and severe malnutrition,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Without urgent action from the international community, the consequences could last for generations to come.”

According to the report – an unprecedented and comprehensive look at the state of adolescent girls’ and women’s nutrition globally – more than one billion adolescent girls and women suffer from undernutrition (including underweight and short height), deficiencies in essential micronutrients, and anaemia, with devastating consequences for their lives and wellbeing.

In Nigeria, 55 per cent of adolescent girls and women suffer from anaemia while nearly half of Nigerian women of reproductive age do not consume the recommended diet of at least 5 out of 10 food groups (grains and tubers, pulses, nuts and seeds, dairy, meat, poultry and fish, eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, other vitamin A rich fruits and vegetables, other vegetables and other fruits) according to the 2022 National Food Consumption and Micronutrient Survey.

Inadequate nutrition during girls’ and women’s lives can lead to weakened immunity, poor cognitive development, and an increased risk of life-threatening complications – including during pregnancy and childbirth – risking mother’s lives, also, with dangerous and irreversible consequences for their children’s survival, growth, learning, and future earning capacity.

For example, in Nigeria, 12 million children under 5 are stunted, meaning they are too short for their age due to malnutrition. Of those, about half become stunted during pregnancy and the first six months of life, the 500-day period when a child is fully dependent on maternal nutrition, according to a new analysis in the report.

“To prevent undernutrition in children, we must also address malnutrition in adolescent girls and women,” Russell added.

According to the report, South Asia and sub-Saharan African remain the epicentre of the nutrition crisis among adolescent girls and women, home to 2 in 3 adolescent girls and women suffering from underweight globally, and 3 in 5 adolescent girls and women with anaemia. Meanwhile, adolescent girls and women from the poorest households are twice as likely to suffer from underweight as those from the wealthiest households.

Global crises continue to disproportionately disrupt women’s access to nutritious food. In 2021, there were 126 million more food insecure women than men, compared to 49 million more in 2019, more than doubling the gender gap of food insecurity.

In Nigeria, the 2022 Cadre Harmonise analysis published by the government shows that 17 million Nigerians are suffering from acute food insecurity, and this is likely to increase to 25 million in lean season this year (FMARD, 2022)

Since last year, UNICEF has scaled up its efforts in the countries hardest hit by the global nutrition crisis, including in Nigeria. with an acceleration plan to prevent, detect, and treat wasting in women and children.

The report calls for governments, development and humanitarian partners and donors, civil society organizations and development actors to transform food, health and social protection systems for adolescent girls and women by:

  • Prioritising adolescent girls’ and women’s access to nutritious, safe and affordable diets, and protecting adolescent girls and women from ultra-processed foods through marketing restrictions, compulsory front-of-pack labelling and taxation.
  • Implementing policies and mandatory legal measures to expand large-scale food fortification of routinely consumed foods such as flour, cooking oil and salt to help reduce micronutrient deficiencies and anaemia in girls and women.
  • Ensuring adolescent girls and women in low- and middle-income countries have free access to essential nutrition services, both before and during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding, including ante-natal multiple micronutrient supplements.
  • Expanding access to social protection programmes for the most vulnerable adolescent girls and women, including cash transfers and vouchers to improve girls’ and women’s access to nutritious and diverse diets.

Accelerating the elimination of discriminatory gender and social norms such as child marriage and the inequitable sharing of food, household resources, income and domestic work.

“To ensure a better future for our children, we must prioritize the access of adolescent girls and women to nutritious food and essential nutrition services. The nutrition crisis is deepening among them, and urgent action is needed from all partners including the government of Nigeria and the international community. We cannot afford to overlook this crisis, and we must work together to transform food, health and social protection systems for adolescent girls and women.” said Cristian Munduate, UNICEF Nigeria Country Representative.

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