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How WFP assists pregnant women amid Sri Lanka’s economic crisis

Vouchers from the World Food Programme enable critical nutrition as inflation soars
, Parvinder Singh
Dushanthi, 32, is anxious about the child in her womb as food and fruits have gone beyond the reach of her family with massive inflation caused by Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis. She has received food vouchers from WFP’s emergency support assistance. Image: @WFP/Parvinder
Dushanti waits in line at a WFP-backed clinic in Colombo. Photo: WFP/Parvinder Singh

Dushanthi, 32, joins the steadily swelling line of pregnant women waiting for World Food Programme food vouchers at the Kuppiyawatta maternal health clinic in Colombo.  

“Our life has become more difficult these days,” she says, sitting on a concrete platform with other women outside the clinic. “Everyone is facing economic hardship, with the lack of fuel and high food prices. But we pregnant women are finding it even more difficult.” 

For Dushanthi and millions of others, Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 – pushing food prices upwards of 90 percent and sparking fuel shortages – has disrupted livelihoods and key safety-net programmes, causing a spike in the number of food-insecure people.

It comes as WFP warns of an unprecedented global food crisis as the country grapples with spiking prices, shrinking crop yields, the fallout of the war in Ukraine and a lack of state funds to pay for key supplies.

Today 6.3 million people, or three in 10 Sri Lankans are food insecure. Nearly two-thirds of families are resorting to at least one negative coping mechanism, including taking smaller portions, or less nutritious food. 

Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under-5, and people with disabilities, are among the worst affected. 

Vouchers distribution for pregnant women in Colombo. Photo: Parvinder Singh
Vouchers are distributed to women so that they can access basic nutrition. Photo: WFP/Parvinder Singh

Indeed, even before the economic meltdown and the COVID-19 pandemic deepened hardship, Sri Lankan women and children suffered from far higher rates of malnutrition than their peers in other middle-income countries.

WFP aims to reach 3.4 million people with food assistance for which it needs US$63 million  to respond to the crisis. This includes supporting 1.4million people with food, cash, or vouchers.

WFP also plans to  support existing social safety-net programmes – reaching 1 million children through the national school meals programme, and another 1 million Sri Lankans like Dushanthi through a government programme providing fortified food to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children

“Focusing on vulnerable populations and communities is a priority to avert a humanitarian crisis,” says Indu Abeyratne, an activity manager, who is at the centre of WFP’s emergency response operation.

Like for many other pregnant women at the Colombo clinic, the WFP vouchers – redeemable at stores for food items worth 15,000 Sri Lankan rupees (US$40) – are a much-needed windfall for Dushanti, whose struggling family includes elderly parents and a husband working as a daily labourer.

Head nurse Udeni at a clinic for pregnant women in Colombo
Nurse Udeni Dematapaksh is ever at hand to help people in Kuppiyawatta. Photo: WFP/Parvinder Singh

As the food voucher distribution gets underway, Dushanti and the other women make their way up the clinic’s stairs to the first-floor hall to await their turn. Many are young and experiencing their first pregnancy. 

“In the past, we used to give ‘Thriposha’ to pregnant women and nursing mothers,” says Udeni Dematapaksha, special head nurse at the Kuppiyawatta clinic, of a flagship nutritional support programme providing fortified food to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children. “But since January, they are not receiving it. 

“Today we are distributing (WFP) vouchers for pregnant mothers, and this is very valuable,” Dematapaksha adds.

Thriposha counts among other key government assistance programmes affected by the economic crisis. Its disruption for lack of funds has removed a critical health and nutritional lifeline for the women and children who once depended on it. Coupled with income losses and inflation, this could further bump up malnutrition levels among these vulnerable groups. 

Moreover, the pregnant women at the Kuppiyawatta clinic face a bitter irony, says Tarni, one of the midwives there. They are provided with a list of nutritious foods they are advised to eat to ensure their health and that of their unborn child but cannot afford most of these staples. 

“Many families do not cook anymore and are resorting to buying poor-quality meals from different places, as that is all they can afford,” Tarni says. “These are difficult times, and we are concerned about the mothers.”

Women receiving the WFP vouchers say they have a clear idea of how they will spend them — on basics once taken for granted.  One woman interviewed said she planned to buy a papaya – a fruit she has been craving but hasn’t been able to afford. “This is a huge support for pregnant women like me,” Dushanthi says of the WFP assistance, which she will use to buy healthy items like lentils and fruit. “It will not only help me but my unborn baby as well.”

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