International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Mali: Addressing hunger one health center at a time

By Sanj Srikanthan, International Rescue Committee emergency deputy field director 

In a community health center in Mali’s southern Kati district, mothers wait in the dry heat to have their hungry children weighed and checked for signs of malnutrition. Dust blows in through the open doorways as people gather outside to collect water from one of the village’s few water pumps — embedded in the caked yellow earth that rings the health center.
 
The drought that has swept across Africa’s Sahel region in the past two years has hit the south of Mali particularly hard. The resulting hunger crisis has been aggravated by a still-simmering coup in the capital and an ongoing rebellion in the north.
 
Eight weeks ago, the streets of Kati were filled with soldiers from the adjoining military camp, who marched the ten miles from Kati to the capital and led a coup d’état that dislodged the central government and sent the country spiraling into chaos. In the wake of the March 21 coup, armed groups comprised of both Tuareg separatist rebels and Islamist groups took advantage of the instability to gain control over the northern half of Mali.
 
The armed groups have reportedly been recruiting child soldiers, abducting and raping women, destroying and looting hospitals, schools, and banks. More than 320,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in the north; some have relocated to the severely drought-affected southern areas, while the majority have fled to neighboring countries.
 
In response, the International Rescue Committee is launching emergency programs targeting some of the neediest areas in both southern and northern Mali, and across the border in Niger.
 
The IRC is working with six community health centers in the Kati district, focusing on care for children. More than 8,000 children under the age of five in Kati alone suffer from severe acute malnutrition. 
 
Many of the health centers in the region lack supplies, staff and sanitation facilities. The IRC is training health center and community health workers; providing additional medical staff; procuring essential medicines and vaccinations; covering the often prohibitive $1.25 cost of pediatric visits; and organizing mothers’ groups to improve infant and child nutrition and encourage good hygiene practice to prevent the spread of disease. 
 
We are also repairing and rehabilitating water, sanitation, and waste management systems in the six health centers as well training staff to maintain them. 
 
These efforts will help approximately 5,000 children who are brought to the community health centers for malnutrition and pediatric care, improve water and hygiene for the thousands of community members who visit the health center, and reach approximately 24,000 children through nutrition programs and other outreach.
 

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