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Malnutrition in mothers soars by 25 per cent in crisis-hit countries, putting newborn babies at risk
by UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP, WHO, Equality Now
6:57am 21st Feb, 2023
Mar. 2023
Malnutrition in mothers soars by 25 per cent in crisis-hit countries, putting women and newborn babies at risk, UNICEF reports.
The number of pregnant and breastfeeding adolescent girls and women suffering from acute malnutrition has soared from 5.5 million to 6.9 million – or 25 per cent – since 2020 in 12 countries hardest hit by the global food and nutrition crisis, according to a new report released by UNICEF today.
The 12 countries – including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen – represent the epicentre of a global nutrition crisis that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and ongoing drought, conflict, and instability in some countries.
Undernourished and Overlooked: A Global Nutrition Crisis in Adolescent Girls and Women – issued ahead of International Women’s Day – warns that the ongoing crises, aggravated by ongoing gender inequality, are deepening a nutrition crisis among adolescent girls and women that had already shown little improvement in the last two decades.
“The global hunger crisis is pushing millions of mothers and their children into hunger and severe malnutrition,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Without urgent action from the international community, the consequences could last for generations to come.”
According to the report – an unprecedented and comprehensive look at the state of adolescent girls’ and women’s nutrition globally – more than one billion adolescent girls and women suffer from undernutrition (including underweight and short height), deficiencies in essential micronutrients, and anaemia, with devastating consequences for their lives and wellbeing.
Inadequate nutrition during girls’ and women’s lives can lead to weakened immunity, poor cognitive development, and an increased risk of life-threatening complications – including during pregnancy and childbirth – with dangerous and irreversible consequences for their children’s survival, growth, learning, and future earning capacity.
Globally, 51 million children under 2 years suffer stunting, meaning they are too short for their age due to malnutrition. Of those, about half become stunted during pregnancy and the first six months of life, the 500-day period when a child is fully dependent on maternal nutrition, according to a new analysis in the report.
“To prevent undernutrition in children, we must also address malnutrition in adolescent girls and women,” Russell added.
South Asia and sub-Saharan African remain the epicentre of the nutrition crisis among adolescent girls and women, home to 2 in 3 adolescent girls and women suffering from underweight globally, and 3 in 5 adolescent girls and women with anaemia.
Meanwhile, adolescent girls and women from the poorest households are twice as likely to suffer from underweight as those from the wealthiest households.
Global crises continue to disproportionately disrupt women’s access to nutritious food. In 2021, there were 126 million more food insecure women than men, compared to 49 million more in 2019, more than doubling the gender gap of food insecurity.
Since last year, UNICEF has scaled up its efforts in the countries hardest hit by the global nutrition crisis, including Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen, with an acceleration plan to prevent, detect, and treat wasting in women and children.
The report calls for governments, development and humanitarian partners and donors, civil society organizations and development actors to transform food, health and social protection systems for adolescent girls and women by:
Prioritising adolescent girls’ and women’s access to nutritious, safe and affordable diets, and protecting adolescent girls and women from ultra-processed foods through marketing restrictions, compulsory front-of-pack labelling and taxation.
Implementing policies and mandatory legal measures to expand large-scale food fortification of routinely consumed foods such as flour, cooking oil and salt to help reduce micronutrient deficiencies and anemia in girls and women.
Ensuring adolescent girls and women in low- and middle-income countries have free access to essential nutrition services, both before and during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding, including ante-natal multiple micronutrient supplements.
Expanding access to social protection programmes for the most vulnerable adolescent girls and women, including cash transfers and vouchers to improve girls’ and women’s access to nutritious and diverse diets.
Accelerating the elimination of discriminatory gender and social norms such as child marriage and the inequitable sharing of food, household resources, income and domestic work.
“When a girl or woman does not get adequate nutrition, gender inequality is perpetuated,” said Russell. “Learning and earning potential is lowered. The risk of life-threatening complications, including during pregnancy and childbirth increases, and the odds of giving birth to undernourished babies rise. We know what it takes to get life-saving nutrition support and services to the women and children who need it most. We just need to mobilize the political will and resources to act. There is no time to waste.”
Feb. 2023
A woman dies every two minutes due to pregnancy or childbirth: New data show major setbacks for maternal health in many parts of the world, highlighting stark disparities in healthcare access.
Every two minutes, a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth, according to the latest estimates released in a report by United Nations agencies. The report, Trends in maternal mortality, reveals alarming setbacks for women’s health over recent years, as maternal deaths either increased or stagnated in nearly all regions of the world.
“While pregnancy should be a time of immense hope and a positive experience for all women, it is tragically still a shockingly dangerous experience for millions around the world who lack access to high quality, respectful health care,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).
“These new statistics reveal the urgent need to ensure every woman and girl has access to critical health services before, during and after childbirth, and that they can fully exercise their reproductive rights.”
The report, which tracks maternal deaths nationally, regionally and globally from 2000 to 2020, shows there were an estimated 287,000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2020. This marks only a slight decrease from 309,000 in 2016 when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect. While the report presents some significant progress in reducing maternal deaths between 2000 and 2015, gains largely stalled, or in some cases even reversed, after 2015.
In two of the eight UN regions – Europe and Northern America, and Latin America and the Caribbean – the maternal mortality rate increased from 2016 to 2020, by 17% and 15% respectively. Elsewhere, the rate stagnated. The report notes, however, that progress is possible. For example, two regions – Australia and New Zealand, and Central and Southern Asia – experienced significant declines (by 35% and 16% respectively) in their maternal mortality rates during the same period, as did 31 countries across the world.
“For millions of families, the miracle of childbirth is marred by the tragedy of maternal deaths,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “No mother should have to fear for her life while bringing a baby into the world, especially when the knowledge and tools to treat common complications exist. Equity in healthcare gives every mother, no matter who they are or where they are, a fair chance at a safe delivery and a healthy future with their family.”
In total numbers, maternal deaths continue to be largely concentrated in the poorest parts of the world and in countries affected by conflict. In 2020, about 70% of all maternal deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa. In nine countries facing severe humanitarian crises, maternal mortality rates were more than double the world average (551 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births, compared to 223 globally).
Severe bleeding, high blood pressure, pregnancy-related infections, complications from unsafe abortion, and underlying conditions that can be aggravated by pregnancy (such as HIV/AIDS and malaria) are the leading causes of maternal deaths. These are all largely preventable and treatable with access to high-quality and respectful healthcare.
Community-centered primary health care can meet the needs of women, children and adolescents and enable equitable access to critical services such as assisted births and pre- and postnatal care, childhood vaccinations, nutrition and family planning.
However, underfunding of primary health care systems, a lack of trained health care workers, and weak supply chains for medical products are threatening progress.
Roughly a third of women do not have even four of a recommended eight antenatal checks or receive essential postnatal care, while some 270 million women lack access to modern family planning methods.
Exercising control over their reproductive health – particularly decisions about if and when to have children – is critical to ensure that women can plan and space childbearing and protect their health.
Inequities related to income, education, race or ethnicity further increase risks for marginalized pregnant women, who have the least access to essential maternity care but are most likely to experience underlying health problems in pregnancy.
"It is unacceptable that so many women continue to die needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth. Over 280,000 fatalities in a single year is unconscionable,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem.
“We can and must do better by urgently investing in family planning and filling the global shortage of 900,000 midwives so that every woman can get the lifesaving care she needs. We have the tools, knowledge and resources to end preventable maternal deaths; what we need now is the political will."
The COVID-19 pandemic may have further held back progress on maternal health. Noting the current data series ends in 2020, more data will be needed to show the true impacts of the pandemic on maternal deaths.
However, COVID-19 infections can increase risks during pregnancy, so countries should take action to ensure pregnant women and those planning pregnancies have access to COVID-19 vaccines and effective antenatal care.
"Reducing maternal mortality remains one of the most pressing global health challenges,” said John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “Ending preventable maternal deaths and providing universal access to quality maternal health care require sustained national and international efforts and unwavering commitments, particularly for the most vulnerable populations. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that every mother, everywhere, survives childbirth, so that she and her children can thrive."
The report reveals that the world must significantly accelerate progress to meet global targets for reducing maternal deaths, or else risk the lives of over 1 million more women by 2030.
Feb. 2023
International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation - UN Women, UNFPA, Equality Now
There are few more extreme reflections of deeply entrenched discrimination against women and girls than female genital mutilation. It is deeply rooted in communities’ gender and social norms and cultural and religious traditions. There is no way to change such harmful practices without challenging these discriminatory norms head on.
The International day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation is an opportunity to focus efforts and build upon successful interventions. These include investing in the education of girls and their mothers, health education and community dialogues with parents and traditional and religious leaders. Men and boys also have an important role in transforming social and gender norms to end female genital mutilation as key change agents in prevention initiatives.
2023 sees the hard-won rights and freedoms of women and girls around the world under threat. The impacts of health crises, climate change and ongoing conflict increase their vulnerability to harmful practices, while also undermining programmatic efforts that have been making important progress. This is not a time to step back from efforts to end FGM, but rather to redouble them.
Women and girls have a right to live free from all forms of violence, have decision-making power over what happens to their bodies and equal access to education, employment, and income-generating and leadership opportunities. These rights imply duties in everyone to respond and to do so with urgency.
This International Day is also an opportunity to recognize the role of women’s rights activists working on the front lines to protect and support many millions of women and girls. They are the ones making the difference. They deserve every support.
UN Women continues to work with women and girls to accelerate the abandonment of this harmful and often deadly practice.
We will continue to engage in concerted activities with men and boys and traditional and religious leaders to build political will and reverse discriminatory laws; enforce existing laws and policies; support women’s economic empowerment and scale up evidence-driven prevention programming to create new norms that are survivor-centered, trauma-informed and emphasize accountability for ending FGM once and for all.
* Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a harmful traditional practice involving the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It can cause immense physical and psychological damage and is internationally recognized as a grave violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. It is estimated that some 200 million girls and women globally have undergone some form of female genital mutilation. The practice continues in communities worldwide, with Unicef warning 4.3 million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation this year.
Feb. 2023
Health experts call for clampdowns on exploitative formula milk marketing, report from the World Health Organization (WHO), agencies.
The formula milk industry’s marketing tactics are exploitative and urgent clampdowns are needed to tackle misleading claims and political interference, according to a new three-paper series published in The Lancet today. Industry influence – which includes lobbying against vital breastfeeding support measures - seriously jeopardizes the health and rights of women and children, the papers show.
“This new research highlights the vast economic and political power of the big formula milk companies, as well as serious public policy failures that prevent millions of women from breastfeeding their children,” said Professor Nigel Rollins, Scientist at WHO and author of a paper on formula milk marketing.
“Actions are needed across different areas of society to better support mothers to breastfeed for as long as they want, alongside efforts to tackle exploitative formula milk marketing once and for all.”
Breastfeeding provides immense and irreplaceable benefits to babies and young children. It helps children survive and develop to their full potential, providing vast nutritional benefits, reducing infection risks and lowering rates of obesity and chronic diseases in later life.
Yet, globally, only around 1 in 2 newborns are put to the breast within the first hour of life while fewer than half of infants under 6 months are exclusively breastfed, as per WHO recommendations.
Given the significant contributions of breastfeeding to people’s health, the Lancet series recommends much greater support for breastfeeding within healthcare and social protection systems - including guaranteeing sufficient paid maternity leave.
Currently, around 650 million women lack adequate maternity protections, the papers note. Misleading marketing claims and strategic lobbying from the dairy and formula milk industries further add to the challenges parents face, by increasing anxiety around breastfeeding and infant care.
An exploitative marketing playbook
Triggered by The Baby Killer investigative report into Nestle’s marketing of formula milk in low and middle-income countries in the 1970s, the World Health Assembly developed the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code) in 1981 and several subsequent resolutions. However, intensive marketing of infant formula continues largely unabated, with sales from these products now approaching US$ 55 billion a year.
The first paper in the Lancet series documents how misleading marketing claims directly exploit parental anxieties around normal infant behaviours, suggesting that commercial milk products alleviate fussiness or crying, for instance, that they help with colic, or prolong night-time sleep. The authors stress that, when mothers are appropriately supported, such parental concerns can be managed successfully with exclusive breastfeeding.
“The formula milk industry uses poor science to suggest, with little supporting evidence, that their products are solutions to common infant health and developmental challenges,” says Professor Linda Richter from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. “This marketing technique clearly violates the 1981 Code, which says labels should not idealise the use of formula to sell more product.”
The series explains how formula milk marketing exploits the lack of support for breastfeeding by governments and society, while misusing gender politics to sell its products. This includes framing breastfeeding advocacy as a moralistic judgment, while presenting milk formula as a convenient and empowering solution for working mothers.
The series further draws attention to the power of the milk formula industry to influence national political decisions and interfere with international regulatory processes. In particular, the dairy and formula milk industries have established a network of unaccountable trade associations and front groups that lobby against policy measures to protect breastfeeding or control the quality of infant formula.
Society-wide changes needed
In addition to ending exploitative marketing tactics and industry influence, broader actions across workplaces, healthcare, governments, and communities are needed to effectively support women who want to breastfeed so that it becomes a collective societal responsibility, the authors state, rather than placing the onus on women.
In particular, the authors highlight the need to ensure women have adequate maternity protections assured by law, including paid maternity leave that aligns, at minimum, with the WHO-recommended duration of six months for exclusive breastfeeding. Maternity protections should further be extended to the millions of women working in the informal sector who are currently excluded from these benefits, the papers note.
Beyond parental leave, the authors call for formal recognition of the contribution of women’s unpaid care work to national development. Globally, women are estimated to perform three-quarters of all unpaid family care work - more than three times that of men. By some accounts, this contributes to around a third of a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
“Given the immense benefits of breastfeeding to their families and national development, women who wish to breastfeed need to be much better supported so that they can meet their breastfeeding goals,” said Professor Rafael Pérez-Escamilla from the Yale School of Public Health. “A large expansion in health professional training on breastfeeding, as well as statutory paid maternity leave and other protections are vital.”
Expanding training for health workers on breastfeeding is critical, the papers state, so that they can offer skilled counselling to parents before and after birth.
CARE Analysis : 150 million more women than men were hungry in 2021
An analysis by humanitarian organisation CARE highlights, for the first time, a global link between gender inequality and food insecurity. Analysing data from 2021, the report shows that across 109 countries, as gender inequality goes up, food security goes down.
Christine Campeau, CARE’s Global Advocacy Director – Food Systems, said, “Between 2018 and 2021, the number of hungry women versus hungry men grew 8.4 times, with a staggering 150 million more women than men hungry in 2021. And the implications of the escalation of conflict in Ukraine will make the situation even worse for women, who play a crucial role across food systems and in feeding their families and communities. Gender equality is highly connected to food and nutrition security at a local, national, and global level. To put it simply, the more gender inequality there is in a country, the hungrier and more malnourished people are.”
Of the four major global datasets on gender, including the World Bank’s Gender Data Portal, the only sex disaggregated food indicators reinforce women’s role solely for their importance in reproduction: measuring anemia in women of childbearing age and counting stunting for children.
Most food security datasets are strangely silent on gender. And, despite women being responsible for 90% of preparing and buying food, they are eating last and least.
Even when both men and women are technically food insecure, women often bear bigger burdens. For example, in Somalia, while men report eating smaller meals, women report skipping meals altogether.
Aisha, who lives in a village in eastern Somalia said, “I don’t remember how old I really am, the drought has affected me mentally and physically so much that I can’t remember. Most days we don’t get anything to eat, other days we eat one meal.”
In the World Bank Gender Data Portal on food and women, the only sex disaggregated food data is related to the number of women who believe, or do not believe, that a husband is justified in beating his wife when she burns the food.
Ms Campeau said, “As women keep feeding the world, we must give them the right space in our data collection methods and analysis to make the gaps they encounter visible and work with women themselves to find solutions to those gaps. Global datasets should be publishing sex disaggregated data on food—whether the focus is on gender or on food.
It is time to update our global understanding of food security and gender inequality, and, local actors, including women’s organisations in crisis-affected communities, need to get the flexible funding and support desperately needed to protect women and girls from hunger-associated gender-based-violence and protection risks.”

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