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What does it mean to be a friend to nutrition? For ninth grader Joya, it’s an official designation that comes with a set of roles and responsibilities. She’s one of 10 students at her school in Jamalpur, Bangladesh acting as a Pushti Bondhu, which is Bengali for “Nutrition Friend.”

Working alongside her teachers, Joya and the other Pushti Bondhus help educate their fellow classmates on health and nutrition. Students are selected to be Pushti Bondhus based on their willingness to support nutrition education, help their teachers with the distribution of weekly iron and folic acid supplementation (WIFAS), their leadership skills, and ability to mobilize and organize other students. This includes strong public speaking skills.

Joya wears a “Nutrition Friend” badge on her school uniform distinguishing her as a peer educator.

The concept was first piloted by Nutrition International in 2018-2019 under the School Nutrition for Adolescent Project (SNAP). In 2020, the government integrated the idea into the country’s national operational guidelines for adolescent nutrition.

Through Nutrition International and the Government of Bangladesh, teachers at the school receive training to help their students learn about the nutrition they need and how to distribute the WIFAS supplements. Students receive training to act as leaders in the classroom, educating their peers and assisting teachers.

Nutrition International distributed special badges to the Pushti Bondhus. Joya and the other selected students wear the badges as part of their uniform, giving them a sense of recognition and a feeling of empowerment.

An adolescent girl in a school uniform is consuming an iron and folic acid weekly.
Weekly iron and folic acid supplementation plays an important role to reduce anaemia in adolescent girls.

“I am taking iron and folic acid tablets and encourage my classmates to take it too,” Joya said. “Things I have learned about nutrition and iron folic acid will help me achieve my goals. If we are not fit or healthy then we cannot reach our goals.” In addition to the nutritional knowledge, being a Pushti Bandhus helps her practice her public speaking and leadership skills, which she knows will come in handy in her future career; Joya wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.

There are four education sessions per month for the students. Md. Mokhleshur Rahman, an assistant teacher at Joya’s school, leads these education sessions every Wednesday, then distributes WIFA supplements to all the female students following the lesson.

“Things I have learned about nutrition and iron folic acid will help me achieve my goals. If we are not fit or healthy then we cannot reach our goals.

— Joya, Grade 9 student

“Iron and folic acid is a very important element for the physical and mental development of adolescent girls,” Rahman shared. “If consumed regularly, it can aid in the physical and mental development of adolescent girls; enhancing focus on studies, reducing iron deficiency, improving their immune system and achieving human excellence.”

Nutritional deficiencies, particularly iron deficiency, are the most common cause of anaemia. Women and girls are specifically affected by anaemia, which can create barriers in their everyday lives. Iron deficiency anaemia can cause feelings of dizziness, fatigue and impact overall cognitive function, which prevents adolescent girls from reaching their full potential.

 A teenage girl smiles to camera. She is holding a pen and looking up from writing in her notebook.
When Joya comes home after school, she writes in her diary what she has learned about nutrition.

Joya explained that since taking the WIFA supplements every week for the past three years, she feels more alert, less fatigued and has had a decreased feeling of irritability, allowing her to participate in the activities she’s always wanted to. “The iron and folic acid tablet I am taking weekly makes me feel healthy. I used to feel very tired but that does not happen anymore,” Joya said. “I can focus more on my studies and take an interest in sports.”

Educating adolescent girls on nutrition does not only impact them. Joya takes the knowledge she learns at school and shares it with her family, allowing them to have a better understanding of adolescent nutrition as well. “I discuss the topics I have learned from my school about health and nutrition with my parents. They encourage me to learn more about it,” she said.

Sharmina Akter, Joya’s mother, has noticed a significant change in her daughter since she became a Pushti Bondhu and started taking WIFA supplements on a weekly basis. “Whenever my daughter learns about nutrition and health-related topics at school she comes home and discusses them with me.” Sharmina said. “I think we all should help spread awareness among others about this.”

A girl stands up in the middle of the classroom. Her classmates are all turned and looking at her as she smiles and has her hands raised during a talk.
Joya wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. She’s practicing her public speaking skills to help educate her peers on nutrition.

The Government of Bangladesh has taken efforts to prioritize the health and wellbeing of its adolescents. Programs such as the Pushti Bondhus are an example of how the government is working to give adolescents a brighter future.

The Bangladeshi government has emphasized and prioritized the nutrition of adolescents. And for that reason, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education are working together to improve nutrition for adolescents in schools, which is being overseen throughout all schools in the country,” said Shirin Afroz, one of Nutrition International’s National Program Officers.

It is part of the Pushti Bondhus responsibility to spread awareness about the WIFAS programs in their school. Nutrition education helps build a better future for adolescents. Students like Joya are encouraging young people to achieve their goals through better health.

Nutrition International continues to work with governments and partners around the world to ensure adolescents are receiving the nutrition they need in order to succeed.