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Malnutrition in Benin

Malnutrition in Benin, like in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, is currently widespread. However, some experts have suggested the malnutrition rate can decrease if nutrition programs focus on education and community empowerment.

Malnutrition and Stunting

Malnutrition is defined by the World Food Programme as “a state in which the physical function of an individual is impaired to the point where he or she can no longer maintain adequate bodily performance process such as growth, pregnancy, lactation, physical work and resisting and recovering from disease.” Globally, it contributes to more than 50 percent of children’s deaths.

Researchers measure chronic malnutrition in terms of “stunting,” or low height for age. Other aspects of malnutrition include the presence or absence of edema, which is dependent upon the relationship between total calorie intake and protein intake. In addition, micronutrient deficiencies, particularly in iodine and vitamin A, characterize malnutrition, leading to growth problems in children.

Malnutrition in Benin

In Benin, roughly 4 in 10 children are chronically malnourished, according to the World Bank. In the north of the country, one UNICEF representative set the rate of severe malnutrition, which often requires immediate hospitalization, at 34.6 percent.

Thus, the problem is severe and threatens the lives of children each and every day. However, the task of reducing malnutrition in Benin faces many obstacles.

For one, 50 different languages are spoken throughout the country, limiting the scope that nutrition programs can realistically aim for in most cases. Also, many entrenched cultural beliefs induce malnutrition inadvertently, so medical personnel have expressed a need to replace myth with other forms of knowledge.

“The main cause of malnutrition is ignorance,” one nurse in North Benin said.

One myth holds that children who eat eggs become thieves. Moreover, it is culturally acceptable for a man to eat first and to leave whatever remains of his share for his wife and children.

The weapon against ignorance is education, which some experts argue must be community-driven in order to work around the country’s linguistic and cultural diversity.

Educational Programs in Benin

One such educational program is the Community Nutrition Education Project launched in 2012. Through this program, 12,607 grandmothers in various communities were taught how to promote the health of pregnant women and children. As important figures in their communities, these grandmothers are in prime positions to educate village members.

The lessons are not complicated. Village members are being taught how to use readily available foods to improve the nutrition of meals. For example, instead of feeding a child only millet, a mother could enrich the dish with soya, moringa or other local foods.

Organizations are working on a broader scale as well, but education remains a key aspect of their work. In 2013, the World Bank approved a payment of $28 million to secure nutrition services for hundreds of thousands of children and training for about 75,000 pregnant mothers and adolescents.

Focus on Cultural Factors

Certainly, structural factors are currently acting to keep malnutrition a problem in Benin. General food insecurity is high, with nearly 12% of food produced going to waste, and, as previously mentioned, the country’s diversity complicates the process of reform.

However, addressing the cultural factors leading to malnourishment can effectively reduce malnutrition in Benin, structural hindrances notwithstanding.

Ryan Yanke

Sources: UNICEF, World Bank 1, World Bank 2, Panapress, Sci Dev Net, University of Michigan
Photo: VECO