The decline in the number of women breastfeeding their babies in Yemen is contributing to the high rates of malnutrition among the country’s children who are under five years old, according to UNICEF representatives in Sanaa.
Yemen’s child malnutrition rates are among the highest in the world. Half of all children under five years are stunted and a further one million are acutely malnourished, according to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) 2014 statistics.
While health experts recommend exclusive breastfeeding for a child up to 6 months of age, Yemen’s most recent demographic health survey showed that only 16 percent of women exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, with a further 33 percent using a mixture of breastfeeding and a homemade solution of sugar and water.
“Unfortunately, we are one of the less advanced countries in terms of breastfeeding in the region,” Magid al-Gunaid, Yemen’s deputy minister for primary healthcare, told Al Jazeera. “It’s a chronic problem in the country.”
Up to 53 percent of Yemeni women tend to rely on infant formula. However, poor water sanitation, poverty and high illiteracy rates mean that Yemen does not have the social, economic or environmental factors needed for the extensive and safe use of milk substitutes.
“These mothers will make a standard tin of formula, which should last around four days, last for up to two weeks by diluting the product so much that it fails to nourish the child,” said Dr Rajia Sharhan, a nutrition officer for UNICEF in Sanaa. “They just can’t afford to buy it regularly and families are putting themselves in extreme situations to do so.”
Moreover, in a country where 13 million people do not have access to safe water supplies, baby formula is commonly mixed with unclean water and dispensed in unsterilised bottles, often causing the child to become ill.
Milk substitutes are not officially allowed to be sold in Yemen without a doctor’s prescription. However, this law is rarely adhered to as nearly all shops, even in the most rural communities, stock the product. Yet, with 41 percent of Yemeni women being illiterate, many are unable to read the instructions on the packaging to understand the best way to use the product.