When Partners In Health (PIH) and our sister organization Abwenzi Pa Za Umoyo (APZU), began our partnership with TOMS Shoes in Neno, Malawi last year, we were grateful. Almost a quarter of the population has to walk more than five miles to access a health clinic. Walking five miles anywhere is hard for most everyone. Walking five miles when you're sick is unimaginable. Walking five miles when you're sick and when you are a kid is terrifying. Can you imagine what it would be like to do that and to be barefoot? As a global health organization committed to improving the health of the poor and marginalized, at PIH we believe in dignity -- it is at the core of how we treat our patients and it is at the heart of our public sector approach to breaking the cycle of poverty and disease. We believe that all humans deserve the right to it, as much as we believe all humans deserve the right to health.
Neno is incredibly rural; on a good day, it takes over two hours to drive from the nearest city, and there is no direct, paved road that gets you there. Getting to every community within the district is even harder. It takes hours of driving on rugged, dirt roads and thousands of dollars of fuel. Thinking through how to work with the local Ministry of Health to provide health and dignity to every one of the 42,000 children who live in Neno is a challenge APZU faces daily. In turn, working with our partners to address that challenge is the cornerstone to PIH's success, in Malawi and beyond.
When PIH began to integrate the distribution of new shoes into our program, our APZU team decided to do something that hadn't been done before: to use the gift of shoes to not just bring dignity (though that's important on its own), but also as an opportunity to deliver health care to those kids who can't walk five miles. To the 42,000 kids who have a 12 percent chance of dying before their fifth birthday. And more specifically, to the one in four children in Neno who are underweight. We decided that every time we gave a pair of shoes, we would also screen each child for malnutrition.
Though we had been conducting shoe distributions in schools for some time, the APZU team knew that adding malnutrition screenings to the distributions wouldn't be easy. We would need to train our clinical teams on new protocols in malnutrition treatment, and we would have to find a way to do rapid malnutrition screening for kids over the age of 5, something that hasn't often been done. We would also have to achieve the nearly impossible task, as any school teacher might agree, of organizing hundreds of excited school kids into classrooms to not only measure their feet for their brand new shoes, but to also measure their height and weight in order to screen them for malnutrition.
Earlier this month, our APZU team piloted our first shoe and health intervention at two schools and we reached nearly 1,000 kids. When I spoke with Blessings Banda, our HIV and Nutrition Program Manager last week, he was thrilled. We identified almost 70 kids as needing malnutrition screenings, and referred them to the clinic for follow up care and malnutrition treatment. APZU plans to continue to monitor the distributions and screenings, and to make sure that the program is successful. We have thousands more kids to reach in the next couple of months, and hundreds more miles to cover to ensure that kids in Neno not only have dignity, but that they also have improved access to health.
One Day Without Shoes is the annual day to encourage the world to go without shoes to bring global awareness to children's health and education. But One Day Without Shoes is about so much more than being barefoot. It is about partnerships and the power behind them. It is about walking with dignity and it is about opportunities to improve children's health. It is about not having to walk five miles to access a health clinic and it is about not having to walk them when you're sick, when you're a kid and especially not when you're barefoot.
Amanda Schwartz is the Partnerships Manager at Partners In Health (PIH). Since 2007, she has helped cultivate partnerships and develop strategies across PIH's work in Haiti and in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Rwanda, Malawi and Lesotho.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and TOMS, in recognition of One Day Without Shoes, an annual day to bring global awareness to children's health and education
by going without shoes. For more information, visit OneDayWithoutShoes.com