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Niger: Tackling beliefs that put children in danger

Dala Madou, a 24 month old boy with scars on his body from a local treatment for malnutrition.

During a recent field trip, we witnessed children who had fallen victim to the negative impact of traditional beliefs. 

We visited Mainé Soroa, where there is a centre which treats children suffering from severe malnutrition.  

Mainé Soroa is in the eastern region of Diffa, where estimated rates of malnutrition are 16 %, above emergency levels. 

The day of our visit, 20 children were being treated, and the managers Dr Yerima and Dr Nafisa gave us a tour. We had the chance to speak with the caretakers who came with these children, all of whom were women. 

We met teenager Zainabou Maliki, who had brought in her first child, and Alima, 25 years old, who had come in with her 7th child! “At what age did she get married to have her 7th child when she’s only 25?” I asked the head nurse. 

“We have a serious problem of gender inequality here. We need help on this,” she responded. “Girls are married at less than 15 years old here, and they don’t have the power to refuse.” 

Doctor Nafisa explained the cause of Alima’s baby’s malnutrition, “Her child is only five weeks old. When she gave birth, she was forbidden to breastfeed because her milk was believed to be cursed. 

“Since she’s come to the centre, we have convinced her this isn’t true and shown her she can feed her baby without any problems. She has started to do so and the baby is getting much better. She says that she will continue to breastfeed from now on.” 

Alima told us that if she hadn’t come to the centre, little Mahamadou Adamo would have died in the village because she couldn’t breastfeed. 

We then met a little boy named Dala Madou, aged 24 months. His body was covered with scars, and he weighed only four kilos. He came to the centre six days ago. 

His mother explained his scars: “In the village, any child who suffers from malnutrition is treated with an iron heated by the fire and applied on his body. 

“When I realized that he wasn’t doing well and still losing weight, a friend told me that I could bring to this clinic. It was when we arrived at Kochi, about 18 miles, from central Maine that health nurses led us here. I hope my child will be cured. ”

Dala was lucky enough to arrive at the CRENI in time to be cured, but sadly this was not the case for Youra Yousoufa, a five-month-old baby who came to us from the Ambro Ali Health Centre located 7 km away.

Little Yousoufa died from pneumonia and severe malnutrition only three hours after arriving in Maine. Yousoufa’s arrival was delayed because his father had refused to let his wife take the child to the health centre. 

Yousoufa’s mother explained: “My child had suffered for over a week. Whenever I told his dad that I needed to take him to the hospital, he was against it. He gave much importance to his flock. 

“When he had gone to graze his herd, I decided to bring my child discreetly to the centre. Unfortunately, the gods have not been at my side. His animals are more important than my children.” 

What can be done to protect children against the double whammy of food insecurity and the negative affects of beliefs? 

We need a solution that pushes people to change their behaviour and beliefs in order to save lives of children. The views of pregnant women and new mothers must be considered. 

We need to address these dangerous practices we are witnessing: “treatments” that degrade and punish children; family members who prohibit women from breastfeeding; young girls who are forced into early marriage; lack of control over birth planning. Often the nutritional rations sent home with children are shared by the whole family.  

It’s a long struggle, with harsh realities coupled with very low literacy and education rates in rural areas in Niger. 

We need to engage in mobilising the communities with mass education and training with the support from the authorities in order to increase awareness of child’s rights and work toward changing behaviours to protect children. 

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