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To help world's children reach fifth birthday, look to this Bangladesh program

An innovative development program in Bangladesh is defying child mortality rates, ensuring children grow healthier and taller, by empowering women and educating families about nutrition. Global leaders should heed its successful model.

By Faheem Khan / May 9, 2012

Children play with water in a pond during a hot afternoon in Dhaka, Bangladesh May 8. Op-ed contributor and director of CARE Bangladesh Faheem Khan says: 'With dedication, effective management, and planning, the lives of the poorest of the poor can be radically, and sustainably, changed for the better.'

Andrew Biraj/Reuters

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Dhaka, Bangladesh

Last month, in the poor Bangladeshi village of Kawabadha, a shy little girl named Morsheda turned five years old in a brand new red dress. Morsheda sang and danced with her friends and family and feasted on a traditional dessert made of rice and sugar. But unfortunately, Morsheda’s fifth birthday celebration is an event many children around the world will never experience.

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Each year, 7.6 million children die before their fifth birthdays from preventable causes and diseases. These conditions are often worsened by the chronic malnutrition and food shortages. That is why last month USAID launched a public campaign called “Every Child Deserves a 5th Birthday” to help raise awareness and end these avoidable child deaths. The topic will enter the global spotlight this month as world leaders take on hunger at the G-8 Summit at Camp David.

For solutions, government and development sector leaders should heed the lessons of a massive-yet-innovative program that is not only helping children such as Morsheda reach their fifth birthdays but also ensuring they grow healthier, and in many cases, taller.

Called SHOUHARDO, a Bangla word for “friendship,” the program is run by the poverty-fighting organization CARE, USAID, and the government of Bangladesh. The first phase, implemented from 2004 to 2010, represented the largest non-emergency USAID food security program in the world.

But SHOUHARDO is about much more than food. It employs an integrated approach that addresses how people support their families and access nutritious meals. And it strikes at the underlying causes of malnutrition, including the deep inequities between women and men.

The results of SHOUHARDO have been phenomenal: Over the last four years, child stunting, the measure of the shortfall in growth due to malnutrition, has plummeted 28 percent despite natural disasters and spikes in food prices. The reduction came at twice the rate of the average US government funded project of its kind in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has the one of the world’s highest child malnutrition rates, but the country’s active and supportive government has helped contribute to the program’s success. Bangladesh is also a country with many policies and laws that protect women, which gives many of the participants in the SHOUHARDO additional support.

SHOUHARDO is one of the most comprehensive and integrated food aid programs in the world. There are very few programs that combine economic capacity building, health, and nutrition education with women’s empowerment.

While women’s empowerment initiatives aren’t new, the idea of combining direct interventions (such as giving pregnant women rations of food) with indirect interventions (such as addressing the disparity between women and men) is one of the program’s signature aspects. SHOUHARDO used a 360-degree approach, which resulted in a bigger impact on the lives of women and their families.

Morsheda is one of more than 2 million people who have benefitted from SHOUHARDO. Morsheda’s family calls her a “nutrition baby” because her mother Hanufa received nutritious food while she was pregnant until Morsheda was two years old. More importantly, Hanufa actively participated in the many health groups that enhanced her understanding of her rights as a woman and educated her on proper childcare.

One distinctive finding from the SHOUHARDO program, documented in a recent paper published by the Institute of Development Studies, was how women’s empowerment played a key role in reducing stunting rates compared to just giving food packages alone.

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