Malnourished Children: India’s Long Standing Challenge
With over one-third of the world’s under-nourished children living in India, the country is once again all geared up to tackle the problem, which still shamefully stands unconquered after decades of efforts.
According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), around 48 percent of children under the age of five in India are stunted due to chronic under-nutrition, while 70 percent are anemic.
“The scale and the gender dimension of nutrition in India shows that while there is economic growth of nearly 10 percent annually, rates of child under-nutrition remain very high,” Karin Hulshof, UNICEF country representative and a member of a panel on under-nutrition and gender in India, said in a recent speech.
The critical window of opportunity
According to the UNICEF-India website, the under-nutrition is critically an “invisible problem” as it often remains undetected until severe; thus, jeopardizing children’s survival, growth and development, and finally slowing down national progress toward development goals.
The under-nutrition is substantially higher in rural India, where the low economic status of the people, uneducated families, and mal-nourished mothers add to the severity of this problem. Also, women have specific nutrition needs during adolescence, pregnancy, and lactation that are directly linked to child health and nutrition.
“The nutrition situation of children is largely due to the situation of women,” said Hulshof. “Widespread nutrition deprivation among women perpetuates an inter-generational cycle of nutrition deprivation in children. Under-nourished girls grow up to become under-nourished women who give birth to a new generation of undernourished children.”
According to Hulshof, girl’s adolescence, women’s pregnancy, and children’s first two years of life create the “critical window of opportunity” when any kind of nutrition interventions are capable of offering children the best chance for survival and development. After the age of two, the window closes and the opportunity for the child is lost.
A national development priority
Nutrition is the foundation upon which a healthy nation is built. Any concrete effort toward decreasing child under-nutrition must focus and begin with a significant decrease in women’s under-nutrition and improvement in health.
“A focus on women’s nutrition and their empowerment to make informed choices about the nutrition and well-being of their children will make of India a global leader,” said Hulshof.
According to the World Bank Report on malnutrition in India(2009), the prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, and is nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa with dire consequences for mortality, productivity, and economic growth.
Hulshof said that the prevention and treatment of child under-nutrition in the first two years of life needs to become a “national development priority,” as the widespread child under-nutrition greatly impedes India’s socio-economic development and potential to reduce poverty.
Recently, the women and child development ministry of India has proposed a multi-sectoral nutrition program with an aim to reduce maternal and child under-nutrition. The rupees 1,213 crore ($195.771 million) program was approved by the union cabinet on Tuesday under the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17).
“Now is the time to combine the existing technical knowledge with the political will to change the lives of millions of children and women in India,” he said. “India can do it and we stand ready to support the government in this endeavor, and unite for children.”