Why lower socio-economic inequality holds key to reducing malnutrition

More than two-thirds of India’s 640 districts, mainly in north and central India, have high to very high levels of stunting.

Written by Shalini Nair | New Delhi | Updated: May 25, 2018 10:03:08 am
Why lower socio-economic inequality holds key to reducing malnutrition Source: ‘Understanding the geographical burden of stunting in India’, IFPRI

A study by the Washington-based agri think tank International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released Thursday has argued for a change in India’s approach to its malnutrition problem — by going beyond the current focus on health and stressing district-by-district reduction of socio-economic inequality and especially, gender inequality.

The study has analysed and spatially mapped data from the National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS 2015-16) on India’s high childhood stunting prevalence of 38.4%, and concluded that very high-stunting districts could eliminate 71% of the gap with low-stunting districts if they are able to improve on specific issues of gender and inequality.

These include differences in women’s low body mass index (which accounts for 19% of the gap), women’s education (12%), children’s adequate diet (9%), assets (7%), open defecation (7%), age at marriage (7%), antenatal care (6%), and household size (5%). Stunting prevalence (percentage of under-5 children who have a low height for their age) is an important indicator of the nutritional status of children.

A third of the global population of stunted preschoolers are in India. NHFS 4 data cited in the study show that the district-level variation in stunting lies in a wide range of 12.4% in Ernakulam (Kerala) to 65.1% in Bahraich (UP). More than two-thirds of India’s 640 districts, mainly in north and central India, have high to very high levels of stunting: 202 districts have a stunting prevalence of 30%-40%; in 239 districts, levels are above 40%.

“The study shows that only focusing on health- and nutrition-related factors under the existing ICDS scheme isn’t enough; there is need to address gender-related inequalities at the district level so as to reduce stunting. Factors concerning women across their life cycles, such as their education, nutrition, age at marriage, care during and after pregnancy, play a significant role, as do the overall socio-economic status of the household,” said Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI, and lead author of the study.

The findings are significant coming just when the union government has launched its National Nutrition Mission (POSHAN Abhiyaan) with a district-level focus to reduce stunting.

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