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Insights into malnutrition in Niger

I’ve previously blogged from Niger about the bleak reality the country faces. Another part of preparing for my visit has been to understand the specific local context underpinning hunger in the country.

To do this, I have drawn on lessons Concern learnt from its experiences in responding to the 2005 food crisis. In early 2006, we commissioned a study from the Department of Social Anthropology in the University of Durham into the social context of child malnutrition. The study provided some valuable insights that I want to share with you.

Culture

General poverty and the overall level of food production have a significant influence on nutrition levels. But it is cultural practices within society and individual family units which determine the children and adults at risk of severe malnourishment and death.

Health 

The key factors determining the young children who will be vulnerable to malnutrition include poor quality foods, poor breastfeeding practices, high prevalence of infectious diseases and lack of access to and use of health services.

Hausa, Tuareg and Fulani

Different cultural practices within the main ethnic groups also impact on vulnerability. The main ethnic groups are Hausa, mainly sedentary agriculturalists, and the Tuareg and Fulani who combine agriculture with pastoral farming. 

Hausa children

While the Tuareg and Fulani are monogamous, the Hausa operate a system of polygamy, with men having up to four wives. Hausa children are more vulnerable to malnutrition than the other two groups, for reasons relating to women’s direct access to resources, workload and different breastfeeding practices.  

Downward spiral

A further important insight from the study was that, with poverty so prevalent, parents will weigh up investments in particular children against the needs of the other children. This can result in a downward spiral of malnutrition and eventual death. 

These are just some of the complexities to be taken into account as we prepare to face up to a very serious food situation in Niger over the coming months.