Good nutrition is not only fuel for strong bodies, it also provides power that unlocks potential. This was a lesson I learned from 18-year-old Alima Mbaye, who lives in Thiès, Senegal.
I met Alima and her classmates on a field visit to the remote town of Notto Diobass. At first glance, Alima and her friends looked like typical high-school students. However, when I spoke with them, something struck me. Although they were at an age when Canadian girls would typically be graduating from high school, many of these girls were still years away from hitting that milestone -- if they hit it at all. Their male classmates were heading toward graduation, but they were being left behind.
Alima and her friends were at a point in their lives where their future and their potential should have been limitless. Instead, malnutrition -- and in this case, anemia -- was like a brake holding them back.
Three out of 10 adolescent girls around the world are anemic, but in the region I visited in Senegal, it is double that rate.
Anemia is a condition in which red blood cells are abnormal in number or size due to a shortage of iron in the body. If you have anemia, your ability to transport oxygen throughout your body is limited. Even though it is not always visible to the eye, when a girl suffers from anemia, her quality of life can be severely undermined. She may be tired or lethargic. She may be more susceptible to illness. She may not perform as well in school or be productive.
Nutrition not only makes a difference, it is the difference.
A girl with a lower level of education is more likely to marry early and have children, and if she has children, she risks severe complications -- or even death -- during pregnancy and delivery. If she gives birth, her baby is more likely to be small or born prematurely -- a major predictor of poor health, disability and disease later in life.
When malnourished mothers have babies with low birth weight, it can lead to a vicious cycle of malnutrition among their children and also affect their ability to contribute to the economy.
Malnutrition, like poverty, is sexist. In too many regions, women and girls eat last and eat the least. Although women select, prepare and cook the food, gender inequity and cultural norms often mean that they get what little is left after others have eaten.
Nutrition not only makes a difference, it is the difference. It's the difference between giving birth to a child and giving her life. For Alima and her friends, it's the difference between attending school and learning there.
Fortunately, although the causes of anemia are complex, the solutions at hand are simple, and we can make a difference.
I was in Senegal with representatives of Nutrition International -- formerly the Micronutrient Initiative -- to launch Right Start. This Canada-funded program will reach 1.2 million Senegalese girls with critical inexpensive interventions, such as iron and folic acid supplements, iron-fortified foods, nutrition education and support. Right Start is part of the multi-country initiative that aspires to reach 100 million women and girls with improved nutrition by 2020.
Improving the nutrition of women and girls is key to empowering them, but it also benefits entire communities. That is why Canada is proud to partner with Nutrition International to help Alima, and millions of girls like her around the world, to reach their full potential and become powerful agents of change.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
Also on HuffPost: