How lactating mothers and babies in Ethiopia are affected by extreme hunger

Mulu Gebre* gave birth to her child as she was fleeing for their safety. Now safe, she is having difficulty obtaining food for her 4-month-old. Photo: Serawit Atnafu

Mothers are struggling to find nutrition for their babies, but if we act now, we can prevent this hunger crisis from getting worse.

Mulu Gebre*, 26, was nine months pregnant when heavy gunfire pushed her out of her hometown in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Then, en route to Mai Megelta, where she was fleeing for safety, she gave birth.

Gebre heard about a distribution center in Mekele, Tigray’s capital, where she hoped to find food for her newborn. ‘‘I came to Mekele because I heard that food for infants—like Cerifam [infant cereal] and milk—as well as diapers—are offered,” she says.

But when she arrived, she could not get her hands on food for herself, let alone for her infant. At the time we spoke to Gebre in the early spring, it was not possible to get aid into Tigray. Now there is a ceasefire, but it still difficult to get aid to those who need it most.

“Thanks to Oxfam I managed to get household materials like a jerrycan, water bucket, washing basin, and solar lamp, for me and my child and dignity kits for me,” she says. “But I need nutritious food especially for my kid, who is now only four months–and already born underweight.’’

Gebre is not alone in her struggle to get adequate food for her child. Climate-induced drought, compounded by conflicts and COVID-19's impacts on the economy, has driven millions of people to extreme hunger. Add to that the conflict in Ukraine, which has inflated already soaring food prices to their highest level ever recorded, making food simply unattainable.

Tenagne*, a mother living in a center for internally displaced people in Ebnat town, points out that there is a shortage in supplies for children and infants. Photo: Serawit Atnafu / Oxfam

Tenagne* is a 29-year-old single mother from Ethiopia’s Oromia region who now lives in a center for displaced peoples in Ebnat town. Upon arrival, she says the youth of Ebnat town met them with food and shelter. Soon after, the government and aid agencies including Oxfam and local implementation partner the Organization for Rehabilitation and Development in Amhara (ORDA), started supporting them with food and household materials. Tenagne received water and sanitation supplies, a dignity kit, and a cash transfer from Oxfam, through ORDA.

While she is thankful for the support, Tenagne reports that there are no supplies appropriate for children and infants. ‘‘Breastfeeding mothers and children all eat whenever they can, sometimes they don’t eat at all, or other times just once a day,” she says. “It is also impossible to easily access formula milk for infants in the area.”

A new report from Oxfam and Save the Children, entitled “Dangerous Delay 2: the Cost of Inaction,” warns that without action, one person is likely to die every 48 seconds in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.

“We’re seeing horrific numbers of severe malnutrition with close to 5.7 million children facing acute malnutrition through the end of this year,” says Save the Children’s Regional Spokesperson for East and Southern Africa, Kijala Shako. “And with the UN warning that more than 350,000 could die if we do not act, the clock is ticking and every minute that passes is a minute too close to starvation and possible death of a child. How can we live with that if we let it happen again?”

What is Oxfam is doing to provide support for families and prevent a worsening hunger crisis?

Oxfam is working with local organizations to reach more than two million people across four countries: Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and in South Sudan, where five years of seasonal flooding has displaced 350,000 people.

In Ethiopia specifically, Oxfam is providing water, sanitation and hygiene items like soap, jerry cans, dignity kits; food items including wheat flour, edible oil, lentils, and salt; and cash to displaced people in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions. Oxfam and ORDA’s joint response in the Amhara region has reached over 6,000 people with multiple cash transfers, water and sanitation products and dignity kits. Oxfam also constructed latrines, bathing rooms, clean water distribution points and water tanks in both sites.

Oxfam is also advocating for humanitarian assistance, while also investing in programs and services that fight inequality and help people improve their lives over the long term and reduce their vulnerability to climate change.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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