FREETOWN — Sierra Leone is a small, densely populated country on the coast of West Africa. It is ranked low on the Human Development Index, at 179 out of 188. More than 50 percent of its population lives in poverty and almost 50 percent are food-insecure.
Hunger in Sierra Leone affects children most egregiously. Malnutrition is a leading cause of death among children and approximately one-third of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished. In some towns, such as Bombali and Tonkolili, the rate of chronic malnutrition is double the national average.
According to Save the Children head of growth, equity and livelihoods David McNair, “Nutrition has been the Cinderella issue of development. It’s been a hidden problem because it doesn’t show up on death certificates.” Malnutrition weakens immune systems and increases the risk of premature death. In Sierra Leone, 44 percent of children are stunted in their growth.
Several structural upsets in recent decades have affected the rate of hunger in Sierra Leone. The civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2001, stalled development and destroyed much of the basic infrastructure.
The Ebola outbreak in 2014 further damaged infrastructure and killed approximately 4,000 people. For more than a year, from the first documented case in May 2014 to the end of the outbreak in November 2015, the country suffered under the burden of an epidemic.
Due in part to the above factors affecting economic development, Sierra Leone now spends billions every year importing rice to feed its people when it was once a leading exporter of this staple food. Currently, only 20 percent of the land is arable but 50 percent is used for agriculture, stunting production. Sierra Leoneans suffer the highest rates of hunger during the so-called “hunger season” from May to December, when those dependent on agriculture struggle to produce at subsistence level.
Another key cause of hunger and malnutrition among children, particularly infants, is the lack of awareness about the importance of breastfeeding. The rate of breastfeeding among children zero to six months is 8 percent.
The government has signed on to the Nutrition for Growth Agreement and the Scaling Up Nutrition movement in an attempt to combat hunger and malnutrition. In addition, the government and various NGOs are raising awareness that children should be exclusively breastfed for at least the first six months of their life. They aim to convince mothers by outlining the health benefits for their children, and the fathers by explaining that they won’t have to buy food for the first six months if their children are breastfed.
Many NGOs in the region are working to alleviate hunger in Sierra Leone. UNICEF works to raise awareness about breastfeeding and supports two centers which admit and treat severely malnourished infants and children.
Last year, Action Against Hunger provided nutritional support to more than 165,000 people, increased access to safe water and sanitation for more than 193,000 people, and economically empowered 14,500 people.
The World Food Programme also has a strong presence in Sierra Leone. It provides supplemental feeding to mothers and children under five, provides food to Ebola orphans and survivors as well as to people living with malaria, tuberculosis and HIV and strengthens production capacity and access to formal markets among those engaged in agriculture.
– Olivia Bradley