The flagship Thriposha nutritional support programme for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children is stalled. Coupled with income losses and inflation, this could lead to higher rates of malnutrition for women and their children.
While boosting the existing social safety net to assist one million children through the national school meal programme, there will be a million targeted beneficiaries as part of a government initiative that provides fortified food to mothers and children.
Thirty-two-year-old Dushanthi, a mother of a three-year-old and a housewife in her third trimester of pregnancy, is one of the women who received the vouchers that can be exchanged for food items worth 15,000 Sri Lankan Rupees, just over .
“Many families do not cook anymore and are resorting to arranging poor quality meals from different places as that is all they can afford. These are difficult times, and we are concerned about the mothers,” she adds.
“Focusing on vulnerable populations and communities is a priority to avert a humanitarian crisis,” says Indu Abeyratne, Activity Manager with WFP Sri Lanka, who is closely engaged with the roll-out of the emergency response.
Though most of the faces are covered, the anxiety and concern are visible in their eyes.
A young Midwife, Tarni, is quick to add the irony that they are confronted with, for they must list down nutritious food and fruits that pregnant women must take for their health and that of their unborn child, despite knowing that most of them are out of reach.
In Dushanti’s case, it will be her child, both parents, and husband, who hasn’t got daily wages for a while now.
Growing malnutrition threat
Nearly 6.3 million people are food insecure and in need of assistance. WFP’s recent surveys indicated that 61 percent of families are resorting to at least one coping mechanism, including eating less, eating less nutritious food, and even skipping meals altogether.
Even before the ongoing crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lankan women and children suffered from far higher rates of malnutrition than most other middle-income countries: 17 percent of children under 5 were too short for their age (stunted) and 15 percent were too thin for their height (wasted), a figure which is considered ‘very high’ in WHO classification.
The Government’s efforts to maintain critical assistance programmes are seriously constrained by the economic crisis. Women and children who had benefitted from national social safety net programmes, are left without this crucial lifeline and are at grave nutrition and health risks.
Every woman we meet at the distribution outlet has a fair idea of what they would like to use the vouchers for. Some of these would be basic and staple in ordinary times but are now out of reach – such as the young pregnant woman who listed papaya as her first buy, as she has been craving it.
“The food voucher is the first of the many nutritional support interventions that these women would need. But they are filled with hope as they hold the vouchers,” adds Abeyratne.
As the food voucher distribution gets underway, the women make their way up through an open staircase to the first-floor hall awaiting their turn. Many of them are young and in their first pregnancy. The floor gets crowded, but everyone is masked to guard against COVID-19 infection.
© WFP/Parvinder Singh
Food is hope
Three in 10 Sri Lankans are food insecure amid the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under five, and people with disabilities, are among the worst affected.
Her resilience is remarkable as she patiently explains what the voucher means to her.