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'A Healthy Diet Is A Human Right': A Young Rwandan’s Experience With Nutrition

Gasana Ingabire with her mother

Photo Courtesy of Gasana Ingabire

Photo Courtesy of Gasana Ingabire

Gasana Ingabire, Zero Hunger intern at CARE, shares her firsthand experience growing up in Rwanda, witnessing the devastating effects of hunger on children, and how she's helping to fight malnutrition today.

Growing up as a young woman in Rwanda, I was privileged. I was able to get an education through programs that ensure girls were able and encouraged to continue their studies through higher education. I was empowered to explore careers in a variety of sectors, from politics to engineering.

But this privilege was not universal. While in high school, I volunteered to teach and play with children and fellow teens who lived in the Burundian refugee camp in the eastern part of Rwanda. I saw kids my age and even younger who were suffering from severe forms of poverty and hunger. Their hopes, and the dreams of their future generations, were being slowly dimmed.

Hunger can have devastating and permanent effects on children. The most severe cases can result in stunting, or the impaired growth and development in children who consume poor nutritious food (WHO). Stunted children grow to be stunted adults. They will be less productive and will be easily susceptible to diseases. If the circle is not broken early, stunted girls will grow up to be stunted mothers who will give birth to stunted children, at great cost to communities and governments. On the opposite side, overnutrition is the overconsumption of nutrients which can become toxic in the body and result in premature death.

I knew that I had to do something about it, so while choosing my career path, I decided to focus on nutrition. I understood at a young age that health goes beyond the physical functioning of the body to include the socio-economic circumstances, such as wealth and gender, that make people vulnerable to illness. Often, inadequate or unhealthy diets and poverty are the leading cause of many diseases. After winning a scholarship through a competition through the Agriculture Club, I enrolled in Michigan State University to follow my dream.

All over the world people are affected by malnutrition, yet it affects people differently. While reading the 2020 Global Nutrition Report (2020 GNR), it became clear that part of the problem is a lack of disaggregated data to support targeted interventions for the most vulnerable groups. Other issues that stood out to me were the lack of access to affordable healthy options, inadequate nutrition education, and the absence of agency among vulnerable groups. The 2020 GNR also highlighted the importance of listening to vulnerable groups. This reminded me of two nutrition programmes in Rwanda, which had vastly differing results.

Hunger doesn’t discriminate and every one of us needs a healthy diet to thrive. That should not be a privilege, it is a human right.

Gasana Ingabire

The first program distributed sachets called “ongera intungamubiri” to families with children under five. The sachets contain 15 vitamins and minerals and were meant to be sprinkled on food, like seasoning. As magical as the sachets were, families were not accustomed to using such seasonings and didn’t understand the sachet’s value, often throwing them away.

The second, more successful program distributed fortified porridge to pregnant women and mothers with children under five living below the poverty line. This program was quite well received as porridge is the main breakfast meal for many Rwandans – it was not something new to them. These examples demonstrate why it is imperative to listen and appreciate the context within which we are working, to avoid intervening in ways that aren’t understood or approved of by the people who need them.

It is also important to educate program participants on equitable distribution of food provided to them within the household. During the COVID-19 quarantine period, where most nutrition programs are now delivering food, including school meals, they cannot guarantee that the intended recipient is consuming the food. Many young women in households around the Global South could be left without.

Beyond undernutrition, the 2020 GNR states that countries should be equipped to fight overnutrition too, as both result from inequalities in the food systems. Before reading this GNR, I underestimated the rate of non-communicable diseases in low-income countries, so I was surprised to learn that three in four people with diabetes are in low or middle-low income countries, which is alarming. Hypertension is rising in low-income countries as well.

of all children under 5 years of age are stunted.

As a young adult, I see why these issues may be rising. As globalization increases, I see more people in Rwanda, especially young people, eating a lot of junk food. This is because they don’t have access to affordable healthy options or proper nutrition education. For young people now, it would be helpful to incorporate nutrition education into school curricula. Furthermore, governments should reduce access to ultra-processed foods and marketing of these products to youth. Prevention is always more effective than curative means. To prevent health problems and growing nutrition inequities, we have to start now with ensuring proper nutrition for our youth.

Nutritious food also needs to be made available and affordable for all. In my family growing up, we rarely consumed fruits and our vegetable intake was limited mostly to the one we grew in our backyard – “imbwija”. Though my parents were educated and understood the importance of a nutritious diet, it was often far too expensive. Even now, as an undergraduate student at Michigan State, I have a similar experience. As a nutritional science major, I understand the importance of a healthy diet, but cannot afford to eat vegetables, fruits and other fresh foods regularly because they are expensive.

Hunger doesn’t discriminate and every one of us needs a healthy diet to thrive. That should not be a privilege, it is a human right. By improving nutrition, stunting would decrease and all the money that goes into addressing stunting could be diverted to other things to benefit society. Decreases in stunting would also result in having a better educated and equipped workforce in low-income countries. If nutrition improves, the amount of money governments invest in treating non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, will be reduced and will be invested in other essential services such as education and infrastructure. All the loans the low-income countries get would be reduced or even eliminated, and countries could become self-sustainable.

In this progressive world, it is important to recognize that as much as breathing is a human right, having a healthy diet is also a human right. If we work collectively, we can make a change. I still hold out hope in my dreams. And by investing in nutrition and listening to the voices of the most marginalized, as the 2020 GNR recommends, we can ensure make the dreams of those less fortunate be realized too.

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