In Senegal, food security and women’s empowerment go hand in hand

WBG Blog Louise Cord

Senegal’s nutrition policy is at a crossroads. Reaching a critical moment where the effects of malnutrition could have a detrimental effect on generations of young Senegalese to come, the Government of Senegal is striving to make efforts to address the root problems of malnutrition. However, if these actions are taken without a conscious effort bolster the key role of women in nutrition, the country may not succeed in stymieing stunting and malnutrition in the country.

Investing in nutrition is crucial given that malnutrition hinders economic and human development. An undernourished child has a lower life expectancy, diminished cognitive and academic skills, and a reduced earning potential of between 10 and 17% as an adult. In Senegal, almost half of under-five deaths are attributable to malnutrition: of the 34,000 children under the age of five who died in 2010, more than 16,000 suffered from some form of malnutrition.

Those who survive often fall behind in their studies (seven months on average), are less able to learn, and are more likely to drop out of school.

Hidden behind these figures lies the critical period in an infant’s life: the first 1,000 days, that is, from conception to 24 months. As infants discover their environment in the months following birth, their brain establishes over 1,000 connections (synapses) per second (see illustrations below). However, nutritional deficiencies slow the speed at which this gray matter network develops, with irreversible consequences.

It has been shown that a simple iodine deficiency (which is prevalent in the eastern part of the country) permanently lowers intelligence (IQ) by 10 to 15 points. It has also been observed that low birth weight, which affects 18% of newborns in Senegal, leads to a 5-point drop in IQ. Suboptimal breastfeeding practices, a phenomenon that concerns 66% of infants under the age of six months in Senegal, knock off an additional 4 IQ points. Studies also show a correlation between stunting (which affects one in five children under the age of five) and a drop in IQ of 5 to 11 points. Anemia, the most prevalent nutritional problem in Senegal (three in five children), leads to an 8-point loss in IQ.

Fig: Stunting in Senegal and in Sub-Saharan Africa

Chart: Stunting and GNI per capita (Atlas method)

Since 2012, however, the stunting rate and the financing earmarked for the nutrition program have remained stagnant. If nothing is done—compounded with the negative effects of climate change which could have an adverse impact on food and nutrition security—the gains made in Senegal over the past 15 years could easily be reversed.

In addition, nutrition policies have tended to ignore factors such as maternal malnutrition (22% of women), low birth weight (18% of newborns), anemia caused by insufficient iron intake (60% of children between the ages of six and 59 months), and new diseases associated with obesity are already emerging.

Together, the World Bank and the Government of Senegal can take the following actions to overcome these hurdles:

  • Step up our efforts (and our financial support) in order to roll out interventions across the entire country;
  • Build the resilience of households and communities to external or climate shocks that have an impact on food and nutrition security;
  • Tackle the “double burden” of malnutrition, which often leads to the existence of both undernutrition and overweight problems in the same households.

Under the leadership of the “Cellule de lutte contre la malnutrition” (CLM), the national nutrition policy coordination unit under the Prime Minister’s Office, the country has embarked on a second wave of reforms following the first reform towards a community-based nutrition service delivery platform based on decentralized management through local governments, civil society organizations, and front line service providers.  The second wave includes the national mainstreaming of nutrition in sector plans.  This multisectoral mainstreaming implies the development of monitoring and evaluation frameworks and mechanisms across sectors, as well as multisectoral financing plans.

However, women must first and foremost be placed at the core of these efforts, given that, in households, women play a key role in children’s growth and food security. This can only be achieved through changes to social norms that adversely affect their rights and duties, their education opportunities, and their access to production, consumption, and child care resources.

If we hope to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition and poverty, we must understand that promoting the status of women in Senegalese society goes hand in hand with the balanced nutrition of children.

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