Facing malnutrition in conflict-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo

Published: Apr 4, 2024 Reading time: 4 minutes
Facing malnutrition in conflict-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo
© Foto: Tereza Hronová

Imagine being forced from your home because of fighting. Pressed by the need to flee, you take nothing but your children and go. You have nothing to eat, and your children become very sick and face malnutrition. For many, this is life in South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where conflict conspires with acute malnutrition to wreak havoc on the people of the province.

In 2020, nearly half of all deaths among children under 5 years worldwide are linked to undernutrition, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The DRC, the fourth most populous country in Africa, is not, unfortunately, an exception. As the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises shows, DRC is one of the 15 countries most affected by global crises. In many households, the diet quality had worsened due to food, fuel, and fertiliser shortages.

More than 40 % of children suffer from stunting (or low-height-for-age)—an indicator of chronic undernutrition. This can trap people in an intergenerational cycle, where undernourished girls become undernourished mothers who give birth to the next generation of undernourished children. Although wasting—an acute undernutrition marked by low weight-for-height—has decreased from 16 % in 2011 to 6.5 % in 2018, the numbers are still of significant concern. This is especially the case when only 8 % of infants between 6-23 months have a minimum acceptable diet.

Charlotte Mujamukire, whilst living on the Itombwe plateau with other displaced people, noticed changes in the health of her infant son Ngendoyabeza. Because he started to lose weight quickly, Charlotte decided to visit a hospital. Her son was prescribed Plumpy'Nut, a nutritious, ready-to-use therapeutic food.

Going further, we support parents like Charlotte in preparing nutritious complementary food (e.g. porridge) from locally available resources. Proper nutrition during the 1,000 days (between a woman's pregnancy and a child's second birthday) offers a brief but critical window of opportunity to shape a child's healthy development. 

Malnutrition poses a severe danger to a child's proper development. It puts them at a mortality risk 11 times higher than children not suffering from malnourishment. It also negatively affects their adulthood.

"For instance, the brain of a child who suffered from stunting may never fully develop, and they may face disadvantages in education and finding jobs. In case of wasting, the child has weakened immunity and may die if nothing is done," says Mathieu Mitamba with People in Need (PIN) in DR Congo.

However, malnutrition is not the only problem which DRC has to tackle. For more than two decades, the country has been affected by conflict. This has not only caused much violence and a great loss of life, but it has also led to more than 5 million internally displaced people. Jacques and his family were forced to leave their home and also lost their livelihoods and assets, including their cattle, which provided milk, a key source of nutrition for their children. Jacques' situation is not, unfortunately, not unique. Cattle looting is common and devastating in South Kivu, where many people depend on agriculture and cattle breeding for their livelihoods.

In Kivu, children and women are particularly exposed to the effects of conflict; they are often the most vulnerable groups, as Minyeko Vicorine, a midwife from Kipupu Health Centre, notes. 

"My wish is that these children will be helped because we live in a climate of war all the time; there are clashes in this village; we don't sleep for fear of being killed—the women have no possessions."

However, malnutrition is a multi-sectoral issue. Besides the ongoing conflict, it is affected by many other interconnected factors, including community gender disparities. Minyeko Victorine also mentions this as a problem:

"Families are poor and don't have the means to feed their children properly. The children can eat, but they eat non-nutritious food because of poverty. Men, who are the traditional power holders in local communities, often perceive nutrition as a 'woman's issue'. Therefore, we help to engage the men in the process of addressing malnutrition."

Because malnutrition is affected by multiple factors, we address them holistically through a multi-sectoral and community-based approach. We also closely cooperate with local stakeholders in researching the needs of the local population, and we aim to tailor our approaches to local conditions and resources.

Nutrition is also connected with the prevention of waterborne diseases and access to clean water and hygiene. In Itombwe and Minembwe health zones, we built 8 drinking water sources, catering for more than 7,000 people.

We fight malnutrition in South Kivu together with Médicines du Monde thanks to funding from USAID's Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance (BHA).


Autor: Eva Mrázková

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