India’s child malnutrition puzzle

Was reading an article by Neeraj Kaushal, Associate Professor of Social Work, Columbia University by the same title in ET. Was shocked to note the details. Here are excerpts:-

  • Image via Unicef
    Image via Unicef

    India is home to about a third of the world’s underweight and stunted children under the age of 5. A child under 5 is almost twice as likely to be chronically underweight in India as in sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Poverty is one obvious underlying cause. But it does not explain the wide difference in malnutrition between India and sub-Saharan Africa. Unicef data show that about 47% of Indian children under 5 are underweight; the corresponding figure for sub-Saharan Africa is 24%.
  • The incidence of child malnutrition in India remains high even in non-poor families. According to data from the National Family Health Survey for 2005-06, a quarter of all children below the age of 3 in the wealthiest 20% of families are stunted and 20% chronically underweight.

  • What explains undernourishment in children of this age group (even in children from well to do families) in India?
  • He suggests that this has got to do with our traditional social and cultural values and practices that hurt the health and welfare of our children.
  • In 1996, Vulimiri Ramalingaswami, Urban Jonsson and Jon Rohde wrote a commentary for Unicef investigating the various possible determinants of child malnourishment and concluded “the exceptionally high rates of child malnutrition in South Asia are rooted deep in the soil of inequality between men and women.”
  • In India, a third of the children have low birth weight. A child’s birth weight is an indicator of the health and nourishment of the mother when she is pregnant as well as her overall health and nourishment as a child and while growing up.
  • Most African women gain 10 kg of weight during pregnancy, but women in South Asia gain only half as much. They also found that while about 40% women in sub-Saharan Africa suffered from iron deficiency, as many as 60% women in South Asia and 83% of pregnant women in India were anemic.
  • Only a third of the breast-fed children aged 6 to 9 months receive complementary foods in India.  This results in retarded growth.  Most of the retardation in the growth of the child in India occurs either during the pregnancy or during the first two years after birth.
  • Critics often argue that the economic reforms have failed to reach the poor and deprived sections of society. But malnutrition also prevails in families that are neither poor nor deprived. While it is true that the implementation of government programmes such as the ICDS needs a lot to be desired, and such programmes are not aimed at changing gender relations at home.
  • A sustained long-term dent in child undernourishment can only be achieved by improving the health, opportunities and rights of the mother, the primary caregiver of children. Not just legislative rights but rights to participate in decision-making both at home and outside it, opportunities for social interactions, rights to improve their lives through education and employment.
  • The historical pattern of the state and status of women in India reveals that it is largely unrelated to economic growth. Let’s look at sex ratio – a number that has been much discussed since the release of the provisional 2011 census results.
  • At 914 women per 1,000 men, the sex ratio at birth is the lowest since Independence. In two of the richest states, Punjab and Haryana, preference for the boy child results in many families abort the girl child or kill her soon after birth. Women’s subjugation continues throughout their lives. One would hope that an adverse sex ratio would increase the value of women in society.

4 thoughts on “India’s child malnutrition puzzle”

  1. We Indians we just shut our eys, mouth and ears when it comes to this subjet, as if it does not concern us. Since more than hundred years, responsible persons are trying to attract attention to this point in India but I have the impression that nothing, really nothing happens. It is not a question of poor or rich,educated or not, it is just a question of our mentality in India towards women. It sounds very hard and cruel but the reality is more cruel and hard.

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