By Rick Leach & Lucy Sullivan
A few years ago in a tiny village in the highlands of Guatemala, we met a young mother taking care of her baby and two young children. When she introduced them, we learned that the smallest of the two children was not, in fact, the youngest. Despite being the oldest child, he was several inches shorter than his younger sibling. Poor nutrition during his early years had left him stunted--for life. And it is likely that this stunting began before he was even born.
What we saw in the difference between the boys' heights is the very real effect of a hidden crisis: malnutrition. Malnutrition has devastating effects on young children, whose brains and bodies depend on the right nutrients to properly develop. When a child is deprived of the right nutrition early on in life, his physical development and brain growth can be irreversibly damaged. This damage often starts before birth--during pregnancy with a mother who herself is malnourished.
This kind of malnutrition is a massive global crisis. There are almost 170 million children under the age of five worldwide who are stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition. These boys and girls are smaller, weaker and more prone to illness and disease than their well-nourished peers.
Young children are not the only ones at risk. During pregnancy, a woman needs specific nutrients, such as iron, to support a healthy pregnancy. Yet iron-deficiency anaemia affects millions of women worldwide. In Guatemala, 26 percent of all women ages 15 to 49 are anaemic, which means they are more likely to die during childbirth, miscarry, and give birth to a stillborn, premature or low birthweight baby.
The key to ending malnutrition is not a mystery, nor does it require a high-tech innovation. It starts with the first 1,000 days of a child's life. And it starts with the mother.
We can save millions of lives by simply ensuring women are well-nourished before and during their pregnancies, that mothers can exclusively breastfeed their children for their first six months, and that they have the resources and the knowledge they need to give their young children the right foods at the right time to support healthy development.
Moreover, improving nutrition for mothers and young children is a proven investment. In fact, studies show that investing $1 in maternal and child nutrition generates as much as $48 in better health and productivity. Investing in good nutrition is even reflected in a country's GDP, which can increase as much as 11 percent annually.
So why are millions of women and children continuing to suffer from and lose their lives to malnutrition? It's not for a lack of solutions, but rather for a lack of prioritization and commitment. Currently less than 1 percent of development assistance is directed to improved nutrition for mothers and their babies, even though malnutrition is the underlying cause of 45 percent of all childhood deaths.
A problem of this scale requires a global response.
We are making strides. Since 2010, more than 50 countries, including Guatemala, have joined the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement to make nutrition for mothers and children a top priority. That same year, the U.S. Government and the Government of Ireland launched the 1,000 Days Partnership, which has mobilized a network of over 80 partners to increase action and investment for maternal and child nutrition. But we need to do more.
We need sustained international commitment from U.S. policymakers, partner governments, civil society and the private sector; for while there is no silver bullet to end malnutrition, there is one window--the first 1,000 days.
This Mother's Day, let's ensure mothers who are helping nourish the next generation are equipped with the most basic tool of survival and success: Good nutrition, especially during the first 1,000 days.
Because as mothers go, so go their children--and the world.
Watch what happens when children are given the chance to reach their full potential.
Rick Leach is the President and CEO of World Food Program USA, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that supports the mission of the U.N. World Food Programme, the largest hunger relief agency in the world.
Lucy Sullivan is Executive Director of 1,000 Days, an initiative launched by the U.S. and Irish governments in 2010 to promote greater action and investment in maternal and young child nutrition.