Women, newborns, children, and adolescents: life-saving momentum after a slow start

Women: delivering far more than babies

In 2010, a new initiative, Scaling Up Nutrition, was launched following publication of a policy paper and framework for action in the Food and Nutrition Bulletin. The framework for action drew on broad consensus among UN, multilateral and bilateral development agencies, foundations, developing countries, civil society organizations, researchers, and the private sector. WHO promptly endorsed the policy paper and called for its wide support. More than 80 institutions responded to that call, and the SUN movement was born.

A nurse helps a new mother to breastfeed in Viet Nam.
UNICEF/T. Viet Hung

The SUN movement focused on scientific evidence that nutrient intake during the first 1000 days of life – from pregnancy to two years of age – was a window of opportunity when good nutrition would have the highest impact in reducing nutrition-related deaths and disease and avoiding irreversible harm to the child. The movement also aimed to correct a situation in which nutrition frequently appeared as an afterthought in development priorities, both within countries and at the international policy level.

"Nutrient intake during the first 1000 days of life – from pregnancy to 2 years of age – was a window of opportunity when good nutrition would have the highest impact."

Dr Chan, WHO Director-General

By 2010, concern about the stalled progress for MDGs four and five had created a more favourable context for scaling up nutrition as a set of interventions with demonstrated life-saving potential. The movement became operational in 2012, offering a unique focus on country ownership, structured sharing of best practices among participating countries, and networks of agencies offering external assistance. When countries join the SUN movement, they commit to develop and cost a national nutrition plan and to establish a multi-stakeholder platform and budget line for nutrition. As the initiative evolved, it offered guidance on coherent multisectoral policies backed, where appropriate, by laws, and strategies for raising domestic resources and working with the business community.

In line with WHO advice and global nutrition targets approved in 2012, the SUN platform for action focused on the delivery of a limited number of affordable and feasible interventions backed by solid evidence of their impact. A package of just 13 interventions was put forward in the categories of good nutrition practices, like breastfeeding and hand hygiene, the provision of vitamin supplements to children and their mothers, population-wide approaches, like salt iodization and iron fortification of staple foods, and therapeutic feeding for severely undernourished children, including the use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods. Even with only 50% coverage with these interventions, estimates showed that 500 000 young lives could be saved each year.

By 2016, 57 developing countries had joined the SUN movement. Between 2012 and 2016, the worldwide number of stunted children dropped by 9 million. SUN-supported monitoring recorded the most dramatic reductions in Bangladesh, Nepal, Lesotho, and El Salvador.

In 2016, at the Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, SUN launched a series of case studies showing how the empowerment of women and girls can build a sisterhood of success for food security. Doing so was considered another essential line of action. In developing countries, women farmers were responsible for 60% to 80% of food production. However, their rights and socioeconomic status were rarely equal to those of men. As the case studies showed, when women farmers were empowered, they were not only more productive, but as the main source of food for their children, they gave future generations a better start in life.

The first Women Deliver conference, held in 2007, brought together nearly 2000 advocates, researchers, policy makers and global leaders from 115 countries. It put the world on notice: the deaths of more than half a million women each year in pregnancy and childbirth would no longer be tolerated. The evidence and arguments presented during the conference brought new ammunition to the case for investing in maternal and newborn health. Subsequent conferences, held at three-year intervals, rapidly increased the visibility of these issues and the impact of the many new initiatives that grew out of the meetings.

The 2016 conference drew nearly 6000 participants from 169 countries and was covered by more than 500 journalists. That conference had a simple but powerful message: sustainable development is possible only when girls and women are healthy and thriving. Investment in women and girls has a ripple effect. All of society wins in the end.