Lack of focus on women’s well-being, education is leading to stunted growth in India’s children

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  • India’s has the disturbing distinction of having the highest number of stunted children.
  • The government has launched a scheme to combat undernutrition in the country.
  • But the scheme must provide for women’s well-being, says a study.
India has the dubious distinction of ranking number one when it comes to the number of children exhibiting stunted growth. The condition is caused by chronic undernutrition in children in their most formative years - from the start of pregnancy to the age of two. According to a report released by UNICEF last year, a staggering 38 percent of children in India, younger than five years, are stunted.

Stunted children are quick to contract illnesses and disease and easily succumb to them. It is also associated with an underdeveloped brain that leads to reduced mental ability and thereby resulting in a domino effect of poor learning capacity, poor performance in school, lower earnings and they are eventually more susceptible to chronic nutrition-related diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

A new study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) centred around understanding the geographical burden of stunting in India reveals that for the country to effectively combat stunting, the government must focus on women’s well-being and education. Low body mass index (19%) and education (12%) in women contributed to almost three-fourths of the differences in childhood stunting between low and high burden in Indian districts.

Other factors contributing to this difference include adequate diet for children (9%), assets (7%), open defecation (7%), age at marriage (7%), antenatal care (6%), and household size (5%).

The IFPRI study is based on the recently-released National and Family Health Survey (2015–2016) that covered 601,509 households in 640 districts. The researchers studied the determinants of stunting across the country’s diverse states and districts. The number of stunting cases varies substantially across districts. 239 of 640 districts have stunting levels above 40% whereas 202 have recorded 30–40% stunting in children. Districts with high numbers are heavily clustered in the north and centre of the country.


Source: Understanding the geographical burden of stunting in India: A regression-decomposition analysis of district-level data from the 2015–16; Authors: Purnima Menon, Derek Headey, Rasmi Avula, and Phuong Hong Nguyen

In order to address the problem of malnutrition, the government has launched a scheme called POSHAN (Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition) Abhiyan or National Nutrition Mission with a three year budget of Rs. 9046.17 crore (approx. $1.3 billion) commencing from 2017-18.

This study aims to help the government prioritise actions to combat undernutrition by improving the socioeconomic, nutritional and health status of girls and women. The study suggests that the POSHAN mission will work if the government applies a district-wise targeted method to improve in women’s health, women’s education and women’s access to antenatal care and other services. According to Derek Headey, co-author of this study, “Our study highlights, yet again, the importance of gender-related factors, especially in South Asia. Any efforts to address stunting in high burden districts in India that do not explicitly consider the multiple ways in which women’s status and poverty play out, will likely fall short.”
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