The Future of Maternal Nutrition is Social and Behavior Change Communication

Over the past few decades, countless efforts have been made globally to address the problem of maternal malnutrition, with billions of dollars spent and innumerable initiatives enacted. Yet, at the start of 2022, UNICEF announced that “global progress in reducing all forms of malnutrition among women of reproductive age is lagging against global goals and targets.”  That might be putting it mildly – nearly 800 million women still suffer from malnutrition globally.

The question is, why are initiatives to address maternal nutrition not more effective?

The answer – they can be.

The secret is Social and Behavior Change Communication (SBCC).

Why are maternal nutrition initiatives ineffective?

Enacting maternal nutrition initiatives in communities often means getting people to alter local traditions and change the way they’ve been doing things for generations. Yet, simply telling people how they should behave often does not lead to the desired response in behavior.

Consider an illustrative example from Bangladesh, where significant investments have been made in iron and folic acid (IFA) supplementation programs since 1988, yet the rate of anemia among pregnant women remains at nearly 50%. Numerous studies have shown that even when supplements are successfully delivered to communities, consumption of these supplements may still be low, due to a belief among pregnant women that the supplements are unnecessary, or fears around adverse side effects, as well as a lack of knowledge on the part of local healthcare providers.

The lesson here is straightforward. Simply enacting maternal nutrition initiatives is no guarantee they will be utilized.

Rather, success is directly tied to the behaviors and attitudes of women and their household members, their healthcare providers, as well as community leaders and policymakers. When knowledge and support of initiatives amongst these entities is lacking, the likelihood of success is lowered.

This is where SBCC strategies come in.

SBCC strategies for maternal nutrition

SBCC strategies are designed to influence both the knowledge and overarching attitudes of a community, using communication and collaboration to understand individual needs and drives, and shift the perception of issues.

For maternal nutrition initiatives specifically, SBCC strategies can be key to overcoming social and cultural barriers, such as those which plagued IFA supplementation in Bangladesh. SBCC strategies allow for all community stakeholders and influencers to be included throughout the process. This promotes the development of knowledgewithin communities, and earns initiatives the support not only of targeted groups, but of the community influencers who shape their behavior, creating change at a foundational level.

The effectiveness of SBCC strategies for maternal nutrition

The positive impacts of SBCC strategies on maternal nutrition are becoming well-established. In Bangladesh, studies have shown that SBCC-based maternal nutrition initiatives have, unlike so many other initiatives in the past, been “well accepted by the community.” But all over the world, SBCC strategies for maternal nutrition have been shown to be more effective and more successful than ordinary maternal nutrition initiatives.

Moving forward, it seems clear that SBCC strategies can and should be the future of the fight for maternal nutrition around the world.

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