Earlier this year, a healthy little Bangladeshi girl named Morsheda celebrated her fifth birthday surrounded by her family and friends. The candles on her cake were a symbol not only of her personal celebration but also of the hope we can all have that malnutrition can be beat. Morsheda and her birthday are proof that there are indeed solutions for malnutrition.
Morsheda participated in a CARE and USAID’s partnership program to reduce malnutrition among more than 2 million of the poorest people in Bangladesh. The program, called SHOUHARDO – which means friendship in Bangla, used an integrated approach that addressed livelihoods, nutrition, resilience, women’s empowerment and institutional strengthening. Implemented from 2004 to 2010, SHOUHARDO was the largest non-emergency USAID food security program in the world.
The results were stunning. The rate of child stunting, a measure of the shortfall in growth due to malnutrition, plummeted by 28 percent in fewer than four years. This decline occurred despite a crop-crushing cyclone and food price spikes.
Morsheda was one of millions who benefited from SHOUHARDO. Her community calls her a “nutrition baby” because her mother Hanufa had received nutritious food from the time she was pregnant until Morsheda was two years old. The program also enabled Hanufa to actively participate in community health groups. Through these health groups, Hanufa improved her understanding of her rights as a woman and her knowledge of child care.
How were such results possible? Simple. Empower women. A study of SHOUHARDO’s results found that women’s empowerment played a key role in reducing stunting rates, lowering the rate by more than just providing food did. Women who participated in empowerment interventions to help them fight sexual harassment, move about their communities more freely and gain a greater say in household decisions were less likely to have stunted children than women who received only nutrition interventions like regular food rations.
In other words, the children of empowered women actually grew taller.
How can empowering women make children grow taller? Again, it’s simple. In Bangladesh, women are usually the primary caretakers of children in the household. As a woman becomes more empowered, she is able to negotiate with her husband to be part of the household’s decision-making about livelihoods and income – and about the types of food to grow and to buy. Throughout the SHOUHARDO program, CARE saw women introduce more nutritious foods into their household. Health and hygiene practices also improved, resulting in healthier, better nourished – and therefore taller – children.
Today, Morsheda’s family is able to feed their children three meals a day and send Morsheda’s older siblings to school, a possibility that was once unimaginable. The family no longer receives direct support from SHOUHARDO, but they continue to apply the tools and knowledge they learned from the program.
Almost 1 billion people – 1 out of every 7 – face chronic hunger. Tackling this sounds like an insurmountable task. Yet SHOUHARDO demonstrates that solutions are within our reach: a comprehensive, integrated approach combining women’s empowerment with nutrition and health-focused initiatives can help ensure children reach new heights and celebrate their fifth birthdays and beyond.
While the fight against global hunger and malnutrition is complex and challenging, SHOUHARDO made one thing clear – and simple – in Bangladesh: If you want children to have a healthier future, giving their mothers food helps. But empowering mothers — that helps even more.
-Stephanie Chen, Policy Communications Manager, CARE
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