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Mali: The deep roots of malnutrition

30 Oct 2014


Segou (Central Mali), September 2014: A mother and her child receiving care at the URENI of Segou. Between January and September 2014, the centre treated more than 400 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition with complications, recording a monthly average of three deaths. Credit: OCHA/D. Dembele
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Central Mali has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the country, despite the fruitful farming activities. But with the continued support of humanitarian and development actors, the situation is starting to change.

The market place in Ségou, a town located in a region with the same name in central Mali, abounds in cereals, fruits and vegetables. People in Ségou region rely mainly on agriculture for their livelihood. Yet, this region has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the country: nearly one child out of six is severely malnourished. This condition affects children’s ability to grow and puts their life at risk.

Koné Aminata Sissoko, a teacher involved with the Coordination of Women’s Associations and NGOs in Mali (CAFO) in Ségou, says malnutrition in children in this region is not directly related to lack of food, but rather depends on a family’s diet. "Families are always eating the same thing. Those who grow rice eat only rice, those who cultivate millet prepare only tô (a millet or corn flour paste) or couscous. Most of the time, the sauce is not rich because the condiments are too expensive," Sissoko explains. She adds that women lack the means to fully exploit the nutritional value of local products, which they could do either by using more elaborate recipes or getting imported produce from other regions to add variety to their diet.

Poverty and ignorance are two of the major causes of malnutrition in the region, says Diarrah Traoré, who is in charge of nutrition at the Referral Health Centre of Ségou: "It is necessary to raise women’s awareness. When a woman has a poor diet, this can affect her child’s growth: 50 per cent of malnutrition cases are due to the early weaning of children.” Few young mothers practice exclusive breastfeeding, according to Maïmouna Sidibé, a member of the CAFO in Ségou: “In the north of the country, most families have farm animals. Each pregnant woman has a goat that is designated to produce milk for her. This supplies the future mother with enough nutrients for her child during her pregnancy. I did not see this in the south".

Progress achieved

Despite these challenges, the malnutrition rate among children under the age of five in Ségou has decreased from 20 per cent in 2011 to 13 per cent today, according to the Regional Health Directorate.

Support provided by the international community and humanitarian partners has played a key role in this--especially the efforts led by the Intensive Educational and Nutritional Recovery Unit (URENI) of the Referral Health Centre of Ségou. The Centre is supported by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the NGO Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI), which is funded mainly by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

Efforts to increase the involvement of community associations in raising awareness of the importance of nutritious food have also proved effective: more women know how to vary their diet, and understand the advantages of exclusive breastfeeding and how bad feeding and hygiene practices can affect children’s growth.

Dr. Issa Ben Zakour, Director of the Referral Health Centre of Segou and Chairman of the Regional Medical Board of Ségou, while welcoming this progress, underscores some recurring needs. "The entire region only has three URENIs for all eight health districts, with 2.7 million inhabitants," he says.

"Despite the focus on the conflict that affected northern Mali in 2012-2013, humanitarian needs in the south of the country should not be forgotten,” stresses the Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Mali, Ute Kollies. “UN agencies and NGOs remain committed to improve the nutritional coverage and to ensure the provision of a suitable assistance, to complement the government’s efforts. Children and mothers need our continuous support, and we are pursuing efforts to mobilize the necessary resources to help them,” she added.

As of 30 October 2014, just 47% of the US$ 481 million requested by the humanitarian community has been received.

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