Poverty, conflict and climate change are deepening the nutrition crisis among adolescent girls and women, with far-reaching consequences for their health and futures – and their children’s. UNICEF is calling for urgent action to help break the cycle.
Written by Marian Murray Buechner and Kathleen Fox
“A woman’s right to food has been overlooked and undervalued for far too long.”
More than a billion adolescent girls and women worldwide suffer from undernutrition, nutrient deficiencies or anemia, while rates of acute malnutrition among pregnant and breastfeeding women are rising rapidly, according to a new UNICEF report calling for more attention and action to address the problem. .
Undernutrition and neglect: a global nutrition crisis in adolescent girls and boys. UNICEF’s first comprehensive report on the topic, sharing new data and evidence on how malnutrition widens gender inequalities in future earnings and life chances, increases the risk of health complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and puts children’s health, growth and future development at risk. .
UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell notes Malnutrition. “It is time for us to put the nutrition of women and girls at the center of the global development agenda, backed by political commitment and resources.”
Malnutrition: fueled by a global food crisis, passed from mother to child
This trend is part of a larger cycle of malnutrition and poverty perpetuated by the global food crisis. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of the war in Ukraine, which has sent food and fuel prices soaring, are all contributing factors, making access to affordable, nutritious food particularly difficult for adolescent girls and women — especially those living in countries already grappling with conflict. instability and severe weather events.
According to the UNICEF report, acute malnutrition rates among pregnant and lactating women jumped 25 percent from 2020 to 2022 in these 12 worst-affected countries: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Chad, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Mali. Nigeria, Niger and Yemen.
Why is the nutrition of girls and women so important?
Undernutrition and malnutrition are particularly dangerous for women and girls for a number of reasons:
- Undernutrition weakens the immunity of adolescent girls and women from infection and increases their risk of life-threatening complications, especially during pregnancy and childbirth.
- Malnutrition impedes the ability of girls and women to learn, earn and thrive – perpetuating the cycle of undernutrition, deprivation and poverty
- Deficiency of vitamins and other essential nutrients before and during pregnancy increases the risk of stillbirth or premature birth and can lead to life-threatening conditions such as high blood pressure and severe anemia.
- Women who are short or thin are more likely to suffer from obstructed labour, or prolonged labour, which can lead to severe obstetric complications and even death.
The report notes that a child born to a mother who is undernourished or undernourished is at greater risk of malnutrition – which could lead to lifelong consequences for his or her future survival, growth and development.
The high prevalence of maternal undernutrition and anemia is a major driving factor for the estimated 20 million infants born with low birth weight each year. UNICEF also estimates that half of the 51 million stunted children under the age of two were stunted during pregnancy and the first six months of life – the critical period during which children are completely dependent on their mothers for nutrition.
The need to expand effective nutritional interventions
Nearly 70 percent – nearly 1.2 billion – of girls and women globally are deficient in vitamins and other essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, folic acid and iodine.
An effective intervention to address this is the provision of multiple micronutrient supplements. These multivitamin pills are sung by health and nutrition professionals, along with reminders that taking the pills consistently is important to getting the full benefit.
UNICEF is committed to making these supplements more readily available – while raising awareness of their effectiveness and importance in protecting both mother and child.
A call to action to benefit from and transform women’s food, health and social protection systems
in MalnutritionUNICEF notes that the nutrition crisis of adolescent girls and women has been overlooked for too long, undermining efforts to end child malnutrition as well as achieve gender equality. Nutritional deficiencies, micronutrient deficiencies and anemia are preventable, even in the most difficult circumstances.
The report identifies a number of steps that governments, their development and humanitarian partners, national and international civil society organizations, and policymakers in the public and private sectors can take to address the global nutrition crisis of girls and women.
UNICEF’s recommendations include:
- Ensure that all adolescent girls and women in low- and middle-income countries have access to essential nutrition services before, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, including access to prenatal multi-micronutrient supplementation – the standard of care for women in high-income countries
- Expand coverage of social protection programs (including cash transfers and vouchers) for the most vulnerable adolescent girls and women to follow a varied diet – one that includes fruits, vegetables, eggs and dairy products – at affordable prices
- Adopt gender-transformative legal policies and measures that accelerate the elimination of child marriage and other discriminatory social and gender norms that perpetuate the unequal sharing of food, family income and domestic work
Russell’s call to action: “Let’s come together to chart a path out of this crisis, protect the next generation of children from malnutrition, and build a more equitable future for girls and women everywhere.”
Last October, UNICEF launched an appeal for $215 million for donor support for its ‘No Time to Waste’ acceleration plan, which aims to reach 9.3 million pregnant women in 15 countries with an essential package of services – including counseling and nutritional support. and micronutrient supplements for the prevention and treatment of anemia. Low weight in newborns.
This appeal remains severely underfunded.
Learn more about UNICEF’s strategies to address the global nutrition crisis for girls and women.
Nutrition programs are central to UNICEF’s mission. UNICEF support. Donate today.