NAIROBI, Sept 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Taboos about eating eggs, the power of grandmas in the home and the best age to become a mother are under scrutiny in the run-up to a summit at which world leaders will sign up to new United Nations development goals later this month.
Having achieved one of the expiring Millennium Development Goals - halving hunger globally by the end of 2015 - governments are shifting their attention to the more complex problem of malnutrition.
Children become malnourished if they do not eat enough of the right types of food, such as proteins, vitamins and minerals.
The new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, replacing the MDGs, include ending malnutrition by 2030 and cutting stunting - children being short for their age - by 40 percent by 2025.
Around 165 million children worldwide are stunted as a result of poor nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life - in the womb and up to their second birthday.
“I am happy that we have managed to get stunting on the agenda because... the consequences are dire,” Joan Matji, a nutrition adviser with the U.N. children’s fund in east Africa, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Children who are stunted have poor cognitive development and health, achieve less at school and, as adults, earn less than children who had adequate nutrition, studies show.
In Ethiopia, stunting costs $4.7 billion a year, or 16 percent of GDP, because of people’s ill health and productivity losses, according to the World Food Programme.
Solving the problem, which affects one in three people in the world, requires better diets - and changes to some deep-rooted beliefs.
“In some countries, they’ll say if you give a child before age two an egg, they will become a thief,” said Mary Hennigan, a nutrition expert with Catholic Relief Services.
Other communities believe that girls should not eat eggs - an important source of protein in poor families - because it makes them mature too quickly, Matji said.
These beliefs often come from older women, such as grandmothers, who need to be educated to change child feeding practices in the home, nutrition experts said.
There is a new focus on targeting men, the experts told a conference in Kenya on nutrition on Monday and Tuesday.
Men often control the purse strings and, as farmers, decide what to grow on the family farm.
“If the father understands eggs are important for the child, milk is important... they become very supportive and we have seen changes,” said Yewelsew Abebe, technical director for nutrition with the Alive and Thrive project, which seeks to improve child feeding practices in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is one of east Africa’s success stories, cutting stunting from 52 to 40 percent since 2008, according to Unicef.
Rwanda, Tanzania and Malawi are also reducing the prevalence of stunting as a result of their governments’ leadership in rolling out national nutrition plans.
The region has some of the highest stunting rates in the world, with Burundi at 58 percent, followed by Madagascar at 50 percent and Eritrea at 44 percent, Unicef data shows.
The culture of early marriage and motherhood also needs to change so that children get better nutrition in the womb.
“There’s an intergenerational cycle of malnutrition,” said Matji. “Young girls get married or have their sexual debut, fall pregnant and they are still children themselves.”
These young mothers, with small bodies that are still growing, often give birth to low-weight babies because they do not get enough nutrients during pregnancy, she said.
Keeping girls in school can help address malnutrition in many ways: delaying pregnancy, improving their hygiene and nutrition knowledge and their ability to retain information, the experts said.
Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change.