It Begins With A Girl

By Lindiwe Majele Sibanda (FANRPAN) and Michelle Carter (CARE International)

Three billion people are malnourished in the world and over two billion of them suffer from hidden hunger according to the Global Hunger Index (GHI). Hidden hunger is associated not with the quantity but the quality of the food eaten, resulting in macro and micro-nutrient deficiencies, meaning malnutrition.

One of the consequences of malnutrition is poor health, which in some cases leads to death, including among children. About 45% of all child deaths are linked to malnutrition and children in sub-Saharan Africa are more than 14 times more likely to die before the age of five than children in developed regions. Immediate causes of stunting are poor maternal nutrition and health during pregnancy, poor infant and young feeding practices after birth.

Research shows that malnutrition is more severe in poor rural households and among smallholder farm families in Africa. Further, recent estimates of the prevalence of stunting and micronutrient deficiencies rank Africa as having amongst the highest rates in the world. The largely irreversible damage of infant/childhood under-nutrition impairs human productivity and could lead to a reduction of at least 8% in a nation’s economic advancement.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day, let’s not forget that it is the mothers of tomorrow that have the power to break the cycle of poverty malnutrition and create a healthy generation. That power can come from agriculture.

Girls and women in rural Africa handle 43% of all farming and virtually all-household work. Working side by side, girls and their mothers tend to gardens, care for livestock, and gather water and firewood. All of these chores are aimed at making sure the family is fed. If we invest in making our agriculture nutrition-sensitive, there would be nutrient-dense foods in abundance, enabling the family to afford a wider variety of quality foods, including pulses, meat, milk, eggs, sweet potatoes, fruits and vegetables. If we empower women with education and nutrition knowledge, promote behavior change and policies that promote healthy diets, diverse nutritious diets would not only be produced but consumed.

At FANRPAN, where I am CEO, we realize that resilient African agriculture and food systems are critical to securing prosperity and health for all and that it all starts in the womb. The period between conception and the child’s second birthday (the first 1000 days) is the critical window of opportunity for influencing health outcomes through nutrition.

While both boys and girls are affected, special attention needs to be paid to girls. Girls’ potential reproductive roles make them the most powerful force of change for the next generation. Good nutrition will enhance their brain development and yield astute decision makers. We want to see these girls grow up from infancy, to be strong, and to become our future leaders.

As World Food Prize laureate Catherine Bertini says, “Rediscovering the importance of agriculture and rural economic development must also include the discovery of the adolescent girl- the very people who are critical to development and who could with adequate support and policy changes, make the difference it its success”.

FANRPAN and the Southern African office of CARE International are celebrating the 2017 International Women’s day through a new bold partnership in this arena. According to the Africa brief of the 2015 Global Nutrition Report, every dollar invested in scaling up nutrition in LMICs[H1] yields 16 in benefits and malnourished children go on to earn 20% less as adults than their well-nourished peers. FANRPAN through the ATONU project aims to break the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition for smallholder farm families and poor households in Sub-Saharan Africa with tailored nutrition-sensitive agriculture programs targeting women of childbearing age and children in the first 1,000 days of life. CARE continues to work to improve women and girls uptake of climate resilient agriculture, which improves yields and meets adequate nutritional needs of their households.

The project will empower women and girls through the implementation of Malabo Declaration and SUN programmes by governments that will help improve their food and nutrition security. CARE and FARPAN will work with governments and other stakeholders on the agriculture and nutrition investments that address the needs of women farmers in achieving food and nutrition security for families and communities.

This complements other high-level efforts on the continent led by the African Union and the African Development Bank (AfDB) to champion the implementation of diverse policies and interventions to address malnutrition in all its forms though agriculture, the food system and other areas. In May 2016, key African leaders at the AfDB Annual Meetings launched the African Leaders for Nutrition (ALN), initiative that aims to bring together Heads of State, Finance Ministers, and leaders from key sectors across the continent to champion and increased investment in nutrition. While the African Union annually commemorates the Africa Food and Nutrition Security Day to create widespread awareness on the importance of investing in resilient and sustainable food systems that promote food and nutrition security on the continent and to share best practices, innovations, challenges, and constraints.

Resilient African agriculture and food systems are critical to securing prosperity and health for all and that it all starts in the womb. If we empower women with education and nutrition knowledge, promote behavior change and policies that promote healthy diets, diverse nutritious diets would not only be produced but also consumed. However, this empowerment cannot happen in isolation, we cannot push the empowerment of girls and mother without bringing their brothers and fathers along. The challenge of malnutrition is one to be addressed by all.

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is the FANRPAN Chief Executive Officer and Head of Mission. Email:

Michelle Carter is the CARE International Managing Deputy Regional Director for Southern Africa. Email:

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