By Blackson Mkupatira:
Over a third of Malawi’s population remains stunted and malnourished.
According to the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS) of 2016, Mulanje registers a stunting prevalence of 36.5 percent, while wasting and underweight stand at four and 17 percent, respectively.
Although this is slightly below the national average that pegs stunting, wasting and underweight at 37, 2.1 and 11.7 percent, respectively, the figures paint a negative picture of the district.
To this effect, Mulanje District strives to reduce stunting growth rate to 25 percent by 2022, according to the 2018-2022 District Development Plan.
Under-five children and expectant women in Mulanje District are constantly affected by malnutrition-related diseases like kwashiorkor, marasmus and anaemia, leaving most locals frail and unproductive.
This development has contributed to the rise in under-five mortality rate which is currently hovering around 38 percent.
Mulanje District Health Office estimates that at least 56 out of every 1,000 under-five deaths annually, are due to protein energy malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency.
The situation has created anxiety among communities as recurring illnesses and subsequent deaths have made them to believe in the myth that they have been bewitched.
Emma Binali, 30, of Nembele Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mabuka, says she had wasted time visiting witchdoctors, trying to save the lives of her two children who she thought were bewitched.
It was until Binali started practicing good hygiene and healthy eating practices that she realised the children were suffering from malnutrition.
“I thought my children were bewitched because I kept taking them to the hospital but their health never improved,” she says.
Binali came to her senses after joining Nembele Care Group in January 2018.
“Some members of Nembele Care Group established in our village by Malawi Red Cross Society [MRCS] through the Scaling Up Nutrition project in 2017 introduced me to the club.
“They taught me the importance of keeping my surrounding clean, good dietary practices and how to take care of my pregnancy so that the unborn baby and I are strong and healthy,” she explains.
Through the care group, Binali says she was empowered to always consider the six food groups when preparing meals.
“At first, I thought I could not manage because it meant buying expensive food. However, they exposed me to paths where I can get all the six food groups within my locality.
“For instance, I can get protein from grasshoppers, oil from groundnuts and vitamins from vegetables. This knowledge is vital in food preparation because now I always diversify the diet to meet daily nutrition requirements for my family,” Binali adds.
She further says, following instructions from a promoter, her youngest child was born healthier unlike the other two.
“Nowadays I only go to hospital for routine checkups. My children are now healthy and I have enough time for my businesses,” Binali says.
Meanwhile, Binali’s household has become a shining example as her children look healthy and strong with their weight proportional to height and age.
MRCS Mulanje District Coordinator, Innocent Chikuni, says the Scaling up Nutrition project was introduced in the area in response to the worrying cases of stunting and under-nutrition.
With funding from Unicef, the project’s overall objective is to promote good hygiene and best eating practices, thereby, reducing stunting by two percent annually.
Chikuni says using government’s guidelines outlined in the 2018-2022 National Multi-Sector Nutrition Strategy, MRCS has since registered 6,948 caregivers.
There are 610 clusters with 55 care groups and 27 promoters in 16 group village heads under T/A Mabuka.
The arrangement has helped MRCS to reach over 85 percent of under-two children and expectant and lactating mothers with high impact, nutrition specific and sensitive interventions, Chikuni says.
“In 2019 alone, we targeted 13,942 under-five children out of whom about 5,266 were under-two. We also targeted 889 pregnant women and 3,906 lactating mothers.
“We conducted quarterly Community-Led Complementary Feeding and Learning Sessions; breastfeeding awareness campaigns and clean village and nutrition model competitions in selected villages where every household with targeted beneficiaries was visited,” he says.
Chikuni says beneficiaries are advised to eat six food groups, maintain backyard gardens and have all necessary sanitary facilities.
The initiative encourages caregivers to be financially stable and food secure. They are advised to join Village Savings and Loans groups, cultivate sweet potatoes and raise livestock.
“We believe that economic empowerment and food security are essential for the target households to meet their daily dietary requirements,” he says.
Mulanje District Principal Nutrition HIV and Aids Officer, Pearson Mphangwe, says the district has contributed to the reduction of stunting growth from 47 to 36.5 per cent in the last decade.
He, however, acknowledges that there is more that needs to be done to mitigate the problem.
Mphangwe says poor maternal health and nutrition during and after pregnancies are some of the leading causes of stunting in the district.
“We commend MRCS for its efforts. We hope that Mulanje will perform better on stunting and under nutrition in the next MDHS expected to be conducted this year.
“Similarly, we have other partners implementing nutrition-related interventions in the district, through which, we have managed to establish a vibrant network of 422 care groups, 59 promoters and 5,067 clusters,” he says.
Some of the partners include World Vision Malawi, Plan Malawi, World Food Programme and Mary’s Meals.
“Through collaboration and coordination, I believe Mulanje will eradicate stunting,” Mphangwe says.
Mulanje District Director of Planning and Development, Mercy Mpakule, on the other hand, says the goal of the council is to reduce incidences of stunting and malnutrition among under-five children by 11 percent by 2022.
Mpakule says the council is implementing a Sustainable Nutrition and Health Support Programme aimed at improving the nutritional status of young children, lactating mothers, people living with HIV and Aids and other vulnerable groups.
“Malnour ished people have challenges; they cannot perform as expected, be it at school or at work. As a result, the development of Mulanje and Malawi as a whole is affected.
“I call upon development partners to mobilise resources for tackling stunting and under nutrition and align various interventions towards the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy and Sustainable Development Goals,” she says.—Mana