The queue of women grows steadily outside a government clinic in Kuppiyawatta, in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. In just over half an hour the number swells to around 200. Pregnant women, some with children in hand, are waiting their turn to receive food vouchers from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) – part of its emergency food assistance response.
An ongoing economic crisis and political turmoil have pushed food price inflation to above 90 percent, with a shortage of fuel disrupting access, livelihoods, and food safety programmes, leaving millions vulnerable to food insecurity.
As the food voucher distribution gets underway, the women make their way up through an open staircase to the first-floor hall awaiting their turn. Many of them are young and in their first pregnancy. The floor gets crowded, but everyone is masked to guard against COVID-19 infection.
Though most of the faces are covered, the anxiety and concern are visible in their eyes.
Thirty-two-year-old Dushanthi, a mother of a three-year-old and a housewife in her third trimester of pregnancy, is one of the women who received the vouchers that can be exchanged for food items worth 15,000 Sri Lankan Rupees, just over $40.
“Our life has become more difficult these days. Everyone is facing economic hardships without fuel and high prices, but we (pregnant women) are finding it even more difficult,” she says sitting on a concrete platform, with other women.
Her resilience is remarkable as she patiently explains what the voucher means to her.
“This is a huge support for pregnant women like me. It will not only help me but my unborn baby as well. I would like to spend this voucher to buy healthy food such as lentils, and fruits for me and my baby,” Dushanthi adds.
Though these vouchers are specifically for supporting pregnant women facing a critical nutrition gap, it is clear that this will be used to support the whole family, as the need is too great.
In Dushanti’s case, it will be her child, both parents, and husband, who hasn’t got daily wages for a while now.
Three in 10 Sri Lankans are food insecure amid the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under five, and people with disabilities, are among the worst affected.
The Government’s efforts to maintain critical assistance programmes are seriously constrained by the economic crisis. Women and children who had benefitted from national social safety net programmes, are left without this crucial lifeline and are at grave nutrition and health risks.
The flagship Thriposha nutritional support programme for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children is stalled. Coupled with income losses and inflation, this could lead to higher rates of malnutrition for women and their children.
Udeni Dematapaksha, special head nurse at the Kuppiyawatta maternal health clinic, is acutely aware of the struggle these mothers are going through, and one can sense a hint of despair in her voice.
“In the past, we used to give Thriposha support to pregnant women and nursing mothers. But since January they are not receiving it. Today we are distributing vouchers for pregnant mothers, and this is very valuable,” the head nurse says.