Lack of food and poor nutrition can impact nearly every layer of society. Most often, those who suffer most are those who can do little to change their situation. Counterpart International, and our local partners Union Nationale des Aveugles du Niger (UNAN) and HANDICAP NIGER (National Organization for People with Disabilities’) on the ground, are working to help those most impacted by food insecurity in Niger — people with disabilities. The Food Aid for Disabled Children Project (FAIR) provides food assistance to schools for children with disabilities and also includes community awareness initiatives to help change attitudes about individuals with disabilities.
Counterpart spoke with the field coordinator of the International Food Relief Partnership in Niger program, Hannatou Hassan, about its impact.
Q: Why was working with children with disabilities so important in Niger and why has it become an initiative for Counterpart?
A: Food insecurity in the country causes a large number of persons with disabilities to move to urban centers, mainly the capital Niamey, as they search for better opportunities to feed themselves and increase their chances of survival. It is much more difficult for persons with disabilities to access facilities, services and food. Children with disabilities are on the streets begging for food daily since the majority come from very poor families. Education for these children is limited. Begging in the streets also exposes the children to potential physical and sexual abuse.
Although there are institutions supporting disabled people in Niger, more intervention is needed, in Niamey especially. Disabled persons, particularly disabled children, are often not a priority in humanitarian and emergency response programs. During food crises, people with disabilities, especially those in urban areas, suffer disproportionately because food aid is focused on rural populations. Counterpart, along with UNAN and HANDICAP NIGER, were the only organizations that provided food aid to persons with disabilities for long periods of time, typically it was a period of five to six months, and supported schools for disabled children.
Q: How old are the children in the program?
A: We are really covering all age groups, starting with infants at about six months, toddlers, and then all the way to school age children from six to 18 years old.
Q: What kind of impact does a program like this have both on the individual and community?
A: The food distribution program addresses the immediate need of getting nutritious food to poor families, while also increasing school attendance. Children with disabilities can now be in school, where they need to be, rather than begging on the streets for food. Serving meals daily to pupils at the local Soli Abdourahamane School for the Blind and Hassane Bana Ba School for the Deaf improves their nutritional status and is a great incentive for increasing attendance. The results from our FAIR evaluation showed that providing food assistance had a positive impact on the school attendance at the two schools: the number of pupils increased by 21 percent in Soly Abdourahamane School for the Blind and by 14 percent in Hassane Bana Ba School for the Deaf.
We’re also seeing a significant reduction in children dropping out of school, from a 23 percent dropout rate to 7 percent in a five-year period. Truancy rates are declining too – so students are staying in school and attending regularly. This also means that more students are learning about best hygiene practices and better nutrition. The students then become teachers in their own households and communities.
Q: The program also included an awareness campaign. Why was this important?
A: Every community — to grow and prosper — needs to include all members in the life of the community. We trained more than 3,000 people, more than half of whom were women. Community opinion leaders, parents of children with disabilities and community members with disabilities all participated. The trainings helped others hear directly from people with disabilities about how they wanted to be involved in the community, and helped shift perceptions. The trainees now can be advocates for greater inclusion.