Iron Women Forge the World

By Chris Dendys, Director, External Relations

Nikhat Praveen was a peer mentor to out-of-school girls in her village of Sai Tangar Toli, Chhattisgarh, India on iron and folic acid (IFA) supplementation to help address anaemia.

Nikhat Praveen was a peer mentor to out-of-school girls in her village of Sai Tangar Toli, Chhattisgarh, India on iron and folic acid (IFA) supplementation to help address anaemia.

On Sunday, International Women’s Day, we were encouraged to reflect on the power of women and the need to ensure that women around the world are positioned, supported and poised to meet their full potential. As we “March4Nutrition” we need to expand our thinking to acknowledge that when women progress, so do their children, their communities, and the world. Inequity undermines not only women’s potential – it undermines all of our potential.

One of the greatest contributors to inequity and stunted progress is poverty, and the poor health and malnourishment that are its corollary. A billion people on the planet are malnourished – but when women are malnourished, the impact is felt not only by them. Its ripple effect is felt through generations.

Iron deficiency, for example, is the most common and widespread nutritional deficiency in the world.  It affects health and reduces the productivity of individuals and entire populations. Iron deficiency is the cause of about half of all cases of anaemia. The consequences of iron deficiency include compromised physical and cognitive development, reduced productivity at work, and increased risk of death. It especially impacts women.

The World Health Organization estimates that one out of every two pregnant woman living in a developing country is anaemic. The consequences are serious.  During pregnancy, a woman’s need for iron increases – because both fetus and placenta require iron to thrive.  A sick or depleted mother has more potential to deliver a sick or depleted baby.  Lack of iron is linked to a woman’s risk of experiencing post-partum hemorrhage and overall blood loss.  In addition, studies have shown that infants with anaemia caused by iron deficiency have lower mental scores and lower motor scores.

The Micronutrient Initiative, and many other organizations, governments and partners around the world, are working to get iron to the women who need it the most. The vehicles are often nutritional supplements, fortified foods, and other innovative means, like delayed clamping of the umbilical cord at birth, to ensure that newborns receive a critical infusion of iron from their mothers in their first few minutes.

MI has maternal and girl-focused nutrition projects in countries around the world and we are proud to have contributed to progress. In Nepal, for example, we have supported female community health volunteers as they distribute iron and folic acid supplements to pregnant women, reducing anemia rates in these women from 75% to 42%. In Chhattisgarh, India, we worked with the Departments of Women and Child Development, Education and Tribal Development to provide weekly iron and folic acid supplements to adolescent girls, through schools and through community centres. Peer mentors helped us reach more young women by working one-on-one with peers on how to take the supplements and reduce side effects.

We are proud of these successes but many in our sector will tell you that it is not easy. Health systems are too often broken. Women don’t attend ante-natal visits early enough for supplementation initiatives to make a difference. Too many women who take iron stop because the doses are high and the pills make them sick. We’re working on these problems and with continued support are finding solutions. However, it is important to point out the challenges because these obstacles are barriers to equity and progress.

As we “March4Nutrition” I hope we will think of all of these women – who are being reached and who can be reached. Although this is only one month, our work to achieve equality continues every day, ensuring every woman, every young girl, every child has access to the nutrition and health supports she needs every day in order to transform her life, her family and her community.

This piece was originally published on 1,000 Days’ blog on 09/03/15

Chris Dendys headshot

Chris Dendys

Director of External Relations

Christina (Chris) Dendys, Director of External Relations, leads efforts to secure, steward, cultivate, increase and diversify Nutrition International’s resource base and forges new strategic partnerships with global and Canadian partners for all of Nutrition International’s programs. She has a Master’s Degree in Canadian Studies. Chris joined Nutrition International in 2011.