KARACHI, Nov 30: Experts speaking at a programme on Friday suggested using the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) to help tackle under-nutrition of mothers and young children.

They said that Pakistan was the only country in Asia whose poor maternal and child nutrition status hadn’t changed over the decades, and attributed this outcome to the lack of political commitment.

The experts said that the status of maternal and child nutrition in Pakistan demanded immediate attention by the national and provincial authorities, adding that multi-sector efforts were required to develop strategies linked to poverty alleviation, health, education, women empowerment and family planning.

They were speaking at a provincial roundtable discussion organised by the Aga Khan University (AKU) to discuss initial results of a study titled ‘Political economy of under-nutrition in Sindh’. The research was conducted in partnership with the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex and was funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), UK.

Dr Zulfiqar Bhutta, professor and chief of division of women and child health at AKU, said that evidence-based policies revolving around fundamental human rights were beyond politics and must not be changed. “Brazil has been able to bring childhood stunting from 35 per cent to less than five per cent in 25 years only because successive governments didn’t change the policy aimed at improving maternal and child health of the poorest of the poor,” he said.

The national nutrition survey of 2011 confirmed that maternal and child under-nutrition remained a major issue for Pakistan in all its dimensions, he said. “But Sindh emerged as the most-affected province with major problems for childhood under-nutrition,” he continued. “Every second child is stunted and deficient in vitamin A and more than half of the women and children are anaemic.”

He said that 35 per cent of the deaths of under-five children in the province were associated with under-nutrition, while childhood stunting rate was as high as 28 per cent.

Explaining the role of poverty in this situation, Dr Bhutta stated that rural poverty was a reality. He said despite having more resources, Sindh has been found to be more insecure about food than other provinces, adding that 22 per cent of rural households in Sindh faced food insecurity and the rate of stunted and underweight children was also found to be very high, 56 per cent, among the poorest of the poor.

Dr Bhutta recommended linking BISP and social safety nets to key nutritional and educational interventions which targeted adolescent girls, women and children.

According to him, the only success story regarding nutrition in Pakistan was of iodised salt which helped reduce iron deficiency in children to a great extent.

In the end, he called for paying greater attention to developing strategies for of staples, common commodities and weaning foods. They should be produced locally and then fortified to suit people’s needs, he added.

Giving a presentation on the study, Dr Shehla Zaidi, an assistant professor in AKU, highlighted the barriers and opportunities in improving the status of maternal and child nutrition in the province. She said that more than 58 per cent of the population did not own land and the already scattered population had braved two consecutive floods.

“Though people spend a large potion of their money on food, there is little food diversity,” she said. “Huge disparities exist among districts in Sindh, ranging from 17 to 96 per cent, related to the people’s access to hygienic sanitation and health facilities.”

According to Dr Zaidi, clustered health interventions needed to integrate vertical health problems and had to improve their coverage. She said that even though feeding programmes in schools had been introduced to increase enrolment, they missed the critical pre-school group where nutrition needed to be addressed the most.

Senator Taj Haider, the chief guest, highlighted the Sindh government’s efforts to promote food security and nutrition in the past and discussed plans for the future.

The programme was presided over by the director general of monitoring and evaluation cell of the planning and development department, Inyatullah Qureshi, and was also attended by health director general Dr Feroz Memon.

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