By Marion Roche, Senior Technical Advisor, Adolescents’ and Women’s Health and Nutrition
October 11th is the International Day of the Girl Child and, this year, the theme is With Her: A Skilled GirlForce.
Over the past year, during our visits to some of the countries where we work to improve adolescent nutrition, we heard from future pilots, teachers, surgeons, lab technicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and a presidential hopeful in Kenya. These girls all have ambitions and they see staying healthy and completing quality education as critical to the path to their economic empowerment. Sadly, over a quarter of the 540 million adolescent girls living in low and middle income countries are not in school or vocational training, and this will jeopardize their dreams.
Poor nutrition and food insecurity can keep girls out of school, but anaemia can also hold girls back even when they are in the classroom. Iron deficiency anaemia, which frequently is the result of low quality diets, infections and normal growth, has been recognized as the greatest contributor to disability and disease for adolescent girls, globally. Also, girls have a biological need for more iron, with lower iron stores than males and monthly losses through menstruation. Social norms can also decrease girls’ access to iron rich foods.
Anaemia in adolescent girls has three major consequences:
- decreased school performance;
- loss of productivity; and
- decreased reproductive health.
Loss of productivity in adolescence may mean lower levels of participation in valuable extra-curricular activities or participation in community and household work. In adulthood, anaemia can directly impact productivity at home and work and earning potential.
Weekly iron folic acid supplementation is a cost-effective approach to preventing and reducing anaemia for adolescent girls, in areas where it is of public health concern.
Nutrition International (NI) is working with Ministries of Health and Education to implement nutrition projects in nine countries in Africa and Asia to reduce anaemia through weekly iron supplementation and to provide adolescent girls (and boys) with the key information they need to be able to understand their own health, nutrition and development.
As adolescents are among the least likely to attend health facilities, especially for preventative services, the health sector is working alongside the education sector, to support teachers to deliver weekly iron folic acid supplementation at school. NI is also working with partners to ensure adolescent boys and girls have access to nutrition and health education.
Through our adolescent nutrition program we are working with national and global partners to draw attention to gendered barriers that keep girls out of the classroom, such as menstrual hygiene management, early marriage, adolescent pregnancy and social norms around the value of female education.
Women and girls can only have equal opportunities to earn, learn and grow when they have adequate nutrition. Well-nourished girls completing school is critical for girls to be supported to grow into a skilled GirlForce.