Bringing nutrition and sexual and reproductive health together for women and girls

By Martha Nyagaya, Country Director, Kenya

Good nutrition is the foundation for human development. It is critical for physical growth, for mental development, and for overall health. A well-nourished child has a better chance of survival, a well-nourished adolescent will have the energy to attend school and complete their education, and a well-nourished adult will be a healthier, more productive member of their community. Nutrition is fundamental for people not only to survive, but thrive.

But for one billion women and girls around the world, malnutrition slows their development and prevents them from reaching their full potential. Adolescent girls remain particularly vulnerable to malnutrition. At a time in their life cycle when they have higher iron needs, girls often face steep barriers to accessing the nutrition they require, including gender discrimination and social and cultural norms that may dictate girls eat last and least. Girls also face gendered barriers to staying in school and completing their education, missing out on the life skills required to effectively compete in the labour market, make decisions about their own lives, and navigate and adapt to a changing world.

Lack of access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) compounds these challenges, hindering girls from controlling their own health and shaping their own future. Every year, 17 million adolescent girls, mostly from low and middle income countries, become pregnant, with higher risks of maternal complications and poor birth outcomes − including a greater risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. Adolescents who become pregnant are also less likely to continue their studies, jeopardizing their education, future earning potential, and health and economic empowerment.

Instead of continuing to address these challenges in isolation, we need a more holistic approach that takes on all the challenges women and girls face. Improving nutrition is a cost-effective investment that can have tremendous returns on health and productivity.

Recognizing how closely intertwined nutrition and SRHR are, Nutrition International has sought to integrate nutrition programming into existing SRHR initiatives. Through Nutrition Influence and Leverage for Transformation (NLIFT), Nutrition International partners with organizations that have platforms that would benefit from including nutrition but do not currently do so. As part of partnerships with both Amref Health Africa and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), we are integrating nutrition into established platforms and helping to deliver nutrition education along with existing SRHR programs.

Nutrition International is supporting Amref to integrate nutrition activities into its non-nutrition health projects. In the Sedhiou Region of Senegal, nutrition education has been introduced into an existing SRHR program in select schools, increasing adolescents’ knowledge and helping them make decisions to improve their own health in critical areas.

Working with UNFPA in Nigeria, we have integrated a maternal nutrition module into the existing national continuing education program for nurses and midwives to enhance their capacity to provide nutrition-related interventions for women. Equipping front-line health workers with nutrition knowledge means that SRHR interventions currently being delivered to populations in need, including hard-to-reach populations, will be both gender-responsive and nutrition-sensitive.

At the upcoming 25th International Conference on Population and Development in Nairobi, leading organizations, businesses and governments will gather to find new paths forward and forge new, innovative and opportunistic alliances. This is a chance for us to break down existing silos and come together so that the needs – and demands – of women and girls are at the heart of everything we do.

These partnerships have the potential to smash the barriers that hold women and girls back, and end cycles of poverty and inequality that persist for generations. Working side by side we have a much better chance to achieve our goals. And our goals are the same – building a healthier, more equitable and productive world.

Martha Nyagaya

Country Director, Kenya

Martha Nyagaya is Nutrition International's Country Director in Kenya, where she leads program planning and development at the country level, manages relations with the government and other key local stakeholders, and engages in policy advocacy to influence government policies and investments by partners and donors. Martha has more than 15 years' experience working in Sub-Saharan Africa in a range of programs including food security, nutrition, health and HIV/AIDS.