About 6.9 million or 25 per cent of pregnant and breastfeeding adolescent girls and women suffer from acute malnutrition across the world, according to a latest report from the UNICEF.
Twelve countries – Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen – are the hardest hit, said the report Undernourished and Overlooked: A Global Nutrition Crisis in Adolescent Girls and Women.
The UNICEF report warns warns that the ongoing crises, aggravated by ongoing gender inequality, are deepening a nutrition crisis among adolescent girls and women that had already shown little improvement in the last two decades.
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.
In the Report, the UNICEF said that the 12 countries represented the epicentre of a global nutrition crisis that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and ongoing drought, conflict, and instability in some countries.
“The global hunger 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.”
The report points out that more than one billion adolescent girls and women suffer from under nutrition (including underweight and short height), deficiencies in essential micro-nutrients, and anaemia, with devastating consequences for their lives and well-being.
UNICEF said that inadequate nutrition during girls’ and women’s lives lead to weakened immunity, poor cognitive development, and an increased risk of life-threatening complications – including during pregnancy and childbirth – with dangerous and irreversible consequences for their children’s survival, growth, learning, and future earning capacity.
Globally, 51 million children under 2 years suffer stunting, 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 under-nutrition in children, we must also address malnutrition in adolescent girls and women,” Russell added.
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.
Since last year, UNICEF has scaled up its efforts in the countries hardest hit by the global nutrition crisis, including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen, 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 micro-nutrient 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 micro-nutrient 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.