In Mali's restive Segou region, WFP and UN partners give women tools to build resilience
On a hot Wednesday afternoon, Atoumata Nimaga smilingly welcomes women – babies tied securely on their backs –arriving at a local health centre in the central Malian village of Dotembougou.
Not so long ago, the mother of three, who is in her twenties, faced hunger so severe that it put her then unborn child at risk. Food assistance provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) arrived, allowing her to take nutritious foods during her pregnancy.
“Seeing my daughter looking healthier brings me peace,” Atoumata says of her infant whom she continues to breastfeed. “I want others to know this same feeling.”
Atoumata is now a local volunteer leader, teaching other village women about healthy dietary practices. She does this as part of a joint programme WFP is implementing with our United Nations sister agencies UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to help families offset the adverse effects of climate shocks and humanitarian disasters.
As she delivers nutrition and hygiene messages, other mothers demonstrate how to cook a locally fortified porridge made with local millet, the sweet smell drifting in the air. Full cups are passed to mothers sitting on benches under the health centre’s tin roof.
Incorporating efforts to improve hygiene, nutrition and farming, the joint UN project has been rolled out in Mali’s conflict-torn Bandiagara and Segou regions. It aims to put more than 38,000 women at the heart of the development process, giving them the knowledge and tools to tackle the challenges many face.
“This project acknowledges women as a force – as farmers, entrepreneurs and members of cooperatives, management committees and other social groups,” says WFP Mali Representative and Country Director Eric Perdison.
Soaring child malnutrition
Like other parts of Mali, Segou has been roiled by intercommunal violence that has left a trail of burned fields and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their villages.
Climate change has also undermined local farming and herding communities, with droughts more frequent and rains more intense. Largely because of these two hunger drivers, half of Malian families do not have access to nutritious food.
Countrywide, more than 11 percent of children aged under-5 suffer from acute malnutrition – a level exceeding the World Health Organization’s emergency threshold. In the Segou region, 15 percent of under-5s, along with pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, risk malnutrition, according to a survey published this year. Less than half the population has access to water points that are vital for people, herds, and crops in this semi-arid Sahel country.
In Dotembougou and other villages, working with local authorities, WFP and FAO support women farmers in obtaining equal access to land, seeds and agricultural products such as fertilizers. WFP works with communities to set up field schools, teaching farmers better agro-pastoral practices, while FAO supplies the seeds.
WFP and UNICEF also work with voluntary groups of local women to organize weekly awareness sessions in their communities about the benefits of good nutrition, breastfeeding and hygiene practices like handwashing. The two agencies additionally supply local health facilities with equipment, medicine and training to detect and treat malnutrition.
“We prioritize interventions integrating nutrition, hygiene, health and food security to help vulnerable communities improve their nutrition, access adequate health services and increase their livelihoods,” says WFP nutrition expert Aicha Morgaye.
In Dotembougou, volunteer health leader Atoumata goes door to door to check women are following the good practices they learned. “This motivates me to continue making a difference in my community,” she says.
Seeds for the future
At the Boidie commune health centre in Segou, Dr Aliou Samake says the complementary approach of good hygiene, nutrition and agricultural support is yielding results. Nearly all the area's children treated for moderate-acute malnutrition under the joint UN programme have fully recovered. Women’s attendance at prenatal consultations has also improved.
“Combining these activities with local nutrition products is essential to fighting malnutrition,” Dr Samake says.
In Kamba, another village in the Segou region, Akoumata Sacko has seen her four children grow strong, partly thanks to good nutrition practices and WFP assistance.
A few years ago when Akoumata was pregnant – and her family was too poor to buy even seeds for planting – her husband left to find work in a neighbouring country.
“WFP’s food assistance came right on time,” says Akoumata of the support, which was part of the resilience-building programme.
She received a three-month ration of fortified flour for her two youngest sons, who are both aged under-2. She also received WFP cash assistance worth about US$160. She used it to buy seeds to grow beans, from which she makes fritters to sell.
“With my earnings, I can feed my children,” Akoumata says with a smile.
With her husband now back, the family is again united. From a wooden shed beside their home, she serves up nourishing porridge. The vast courtyard grows quiet as her children savour every bite.
The joint UN programme is made possible thanks to funding from Canada. This article was first published on 28 November 2023 and updated on 3 January 2024.