Three weeks ago, I took a field trip to Baidoa, one of the largest cities in southern Somalia – the epicentre of the famine. It was still early in the morning, but the outpatient therapeutic feeding centre run by UNICEF partner Deeg-Roor Medical was already packed with mothers and their young children.
Inside the single-floor building, about half of the length of a basketball court, several activities were taking place at the same time. In the inner sections, children were being weighed on a scale. Right next to them, doctors and nurses were assessing each child and diligently making notes about their conditions. Across the room, a young female health worker was delivering a lesson on feeding and hygiene to a group of mothers and children. She was aided by a flip chart with colourful illustrations that helped enforce her messages on breastfeeding, handwashing and immunisation.
Outside, more mothers and children were queuing to get in, shielding themselves from the sun in the little shade they could find – along the walls, beneath the trees – or just by holding up a headscarf.
Since the famine, malnutrition has decreased to some extent. Among children under five years old it has fallen from 18 per cent in the 2011 'Gu' (the rainy season in Somalia, which is the primary cropping season and runs from April to June) to 13 per cent in the 2015 'Gu'. However, the improvement has not been enough to lift hundreds of thousands of children out of the fear – and the reality – of hunger. The latest data show that as many as 308 000 children are acutely malnourished, including nearly 56 000 severely malnourished who need urgent treatment.
The statistic translates into this more graspable fact: one in every seven Somali children is malnourished.
The worst malnutrition rates are among those who have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict, drought or other reasons. In the two camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) that I visited almost no men had jobs. It is often the women who support the household by washing clothes for better-off families in town, or looking for firewood to sell outside the camp – exposing them to the danger of sexual violence.
“Most of us come from the countryside, so we are not used to this kind of camp life,” said Hawa Abukar Waladi, a community health worker in Salamey Idale IDP camp.
Everywhere you look there are rag- and sheet-covered huts sprawling in every direction. Piles of waste are scattered across the dusty landscape. Children walk around, with no shoes, and many without trousers.
“Sanitation and hygiene is a big problem here. Many children suffer from malnutrition, diarrhoea, and several of the pregnant women are anaemic,” said Hawa.
Hawa and her colleagues dispense crucial information on feeding and hygiene practices to the mothers. They also treat common childhood diseases and provide referral services. UNICEF supports this life-saving work by Hawa and her colleagues with funds from donors. In 2015, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) allocated US$2.8 million (€2.5 million) to support UNICEF on nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene and other sectors.
Treatment for malnutrition – as long as there are no complications involved – is simple. Given ready-to-use therapeutic food, 90 per cent of children can recover. But what’s depressing is that as old cases are successfully treated, new cases occur. Until poverty, unemployment and poor living conditions are addressed, and solutions are found for the displaced families, Somali children will continue to live – and die – from the menace of hunger.