Eleven-year old Nyanyiik rests her hands on the stomach of Sundoay John - who is 9 months pregnant with her second child - outside the UNICEF-supported maternity ward at Malakal Teaching Hospital, South Sudan.
Children's Health

UNICEF Launches Multi-Country Push to Improve Maternal Nutrition

UNICEF and partners are stepping up efforts to ensure equitable access to nutrition services and care in 16 countries where malnutrition risks are highest among pregnant women and adolescent girls. The new Improving Maternal Nutrition Acceleration Plan to Prevent Malnutrition and Anemia During Pregnancy promises to go a long way toward protecting children's health and well-being too. 

The vision: a world where women and girls realize their right to adequate nutrition before and during pregnancy and while breastfeeding 

Despite important progress in advancing the rights of adolescent girls and women around the world, inequitable access to nutritious diets, services and care practices persists — which means that maternal malnutrition also persists. 

Roughly 36 percent of pregnant mothers, or some 32 million women, suffer from anemia, primarily due to iron deficiencies and lack of other essential nutrients in their diets.

Aline, a nursing mother, gets screened for malnutrition during a malnutrition screening session organized by UNICEF at the Kanyaruchinya IDP site in North Kivu province, DRC, March 8, 2024.
Aline, a nursing mother, is screened for malnutrition at the Kanyaruchinya camp for displaced families in North Kivu province, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as part of a large-scale campaign in Goma, where UNICEF-supported community health workers visit with each family to screen and refer for treatment if necessary. © UNICEF/UNI539077/Benekire 

Improving maternal nutrition helps give children their best start in life

Nutritional anemia and micronutrient deficiencies during pregnancy and breastfeeding are not only a threat to a woman's own life and health — increasing risks of potentially life-threatening complications during childbirth — they also increase the risks of stillbirth and newborn death.

A child born to a malnourished mother is more likely to suffer from childhood stunting, wasting and long-term health complications that can profoundly, negatively impact their physical and cognitive development, learning and overall potential into adulthood. 

An acceleration plan to reach 16 million girls and women in 16 countries with a package of essential services 

On March 14, UNICEF unveiled Improving Maternal Nutrition: An Acceleration Plan to Prevent Malnutrition and Anemia During Pregnancy, a strategic framework for reaching 16 million girls and women across 16 countries with a package of essential nutrition services by the end of 2025.

The 16 countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Venezuela — have three things in common: a high prevalence of anemia in adolescent girls and women, a high prevalence of low birthweight in infants, and an enabling policy and program environment.

A pregnant mother is examined by a health worker at a UNICEF-supported mobile clinic in the village of Belaza, southwestern Madagascar.
A pregnant woman is examined by a health worker at a UNICEF-supported mobile clinic operating in the village of Belaza, southwestern Madagascar. Women and children in the region are especially vulnerable to malnutrition due to food insecurity fueled by the devastating effects of cyclones, recurring droughts and poor harvests, among other factors. © UNICEF/UNI419615/Prinsloo

For UNICEF, the plan represents a potential game changer for tackling the broader global nutrition crisis. It promises to advance gender equality — poor nutrition has been linked to lower learning and earning — and break the intergenerational cycle of poverty

Related: Q&A with UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Harriet Torlesse

Education, screening, multiple micronutrient supplements and more

The plan provides a roadmap for scaling the delivery of a package of essential nutrition services as part of antenatal care for expectant mothers, including:

  • nutrition information, education and counseling
  • healthy weight gain monitoring
  • multiple micronutrient supplements
  • deworming prophylaxis and malaria control if appropriate
  • nutrition screening and referral for treatment as needed

Multiple micronutrient supplements are particularly cost effective for preventing maternal malnutrition and improving birth outcomes. Packed with 15 essential micronutrients, these supplements, when taken during pregnancy, protect the health of both mother and baby — lowering the risk of low birth weight by up to 19 percent, of pre-term birth by 7 percent and of stillbirth by 8 percent. 

A full course of micronutrient tablets, enough to cover an entire pregnancy, costs approximately $2.20. UNICEF, which already supports their procurement and distribution through its supply division and country-based health and nutrition programs, will continue working with governments and local partners to ensure they are more widely available

Zahra, pregnant mother of a 1-year-old baby girl Farzana, has come to the maternity ward for a checkup at a UNICEF-supported hospital in Guzarah district, Herat province, Afghanistan.
Zahra, a pregnant mother shown holding her 1-year-old daughter, Farzana, is provided with supplements containing iron and folic acid as part of her prenatal care visit to the maternity ward at a UNICEF-supported hospital in Guzarah district, Herat province, Afghanistan. © UNICEF/UNI424245/Neikrawa

Promoting proven policies, building capacities across health systems to ensure maternal nutrition programs are sustainable

To support the plan's implementation, UNICEF will continue collaborating with governments and other partners to help integrate the delivery of these essential services across health systems through advocacy and policy action, capacity building, community engagement, finance mobilization and other means.

Read the full report.

In Aroma town, Kassala state, Sudan, mother Aisha Alamin Ali, 29, who is seven months pregnant, stands in front of her family’s home.
Aisha Alamin Ali, 29, seven months pregnant, is one of 50,000 pregnant and lactating mothers and their children in Kassala and Red Sea states in eastern Sudan who have benefited from the UNICEF-supported Mother and Child Cash Transfer Plus program since 2020. The program aims to contribute to a reduction in child and maternal mortality and malnutrition by improving maternal, infant and young child feeding while promoting essential family practices in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, laying the foundation for optimal health, growth and neurodevelopment. © UNICEF/UNI396358/Zehbrauskas

"With a package of essential nutrition services in antenatal care, we can improve women's health, and we can address inequality by offering the poorest and most vulnerable women the same standard of prenatal care as women in wealthier communities and countries," UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said.

"With this plan, we want to ensure that pregnant women realize their right to good nutrition and give their children the best chance to survive, grow and develop to their fullest potential."

Every girl and woman has a right to good nutrition. Prioritizing maternal nutrition is a strategic investment in the health and prosperity of future generations. 

Help UNICEF and partners keep working towards a future where every woman and child has access to the nutrition and care they need to thrive. Donate today.



TOP PHOTO: Eleven-year-old Nyanyiik with Sundoay John, who is 9 months pregnant with her second child, outside the UNICEF-supported maternity ward at Malakal Teaching Hospital in South Sudan. Preventing malnutrition in adolescent girls and women is the focus on a new global acceleration plan by UNICEF and partners. © UNICEF/UN0361588/Naftalin