Women in Balochistan severely malnourished, experts warn

Published November 29, 2014
In Balochistan, poverty and unemployment coupled with worsening law and order situation have deepened woes and severely affected the nutritional status of women. — Reuters/file
In Balochistan, poverty and unemployment coupled with worsening law and order situation have deepened woes and severely affected the nutritional status of women. — Reuters/file

Health experts in Balochistan are sounding the alarm bells as scores of women continue to suffer from malnourishment and anemia, a major cause of increasing maternal mortality rate in the province.

The warning comes just weeks after the Global Nutrition Report said the 'world had crossed the malnutrition red line.'

Globally, malnutrition led to “11% of GDP being squandered as a result of lives lost, less learning, less earning and days lost to illness,” it added.

In Balochistan, poverty and unemployment coupled with worsening law and order situation have deepened woes and severely affected the nutritional status of women.

According to National Nutrition Survey (NNS) conducted in 2001, 26.9 per cent of women were anemic. The numbers jumped from 26.9 to 49 per cent in 2011. The NNS portrayed a bleak picture of Balochistan in terms of malnourishment as compared to other provinces of the country.

According to the same survey, 63 per cent of the population of Balochistan was faced with food insecurity.

“When mothers are anemic, they give birth to malnourished children and the cycle continues,” Dr Ali Nasir Bugti, who heads a nutrition program for weak mothers in Balochistan, tells Dawn.com. Most of the women are iron deficient, he says.

The Balochistan government did launch a nutrition program for anemic mothers and malnourished children in nine districts in collaboration with World Food Program (WFP) but it has been largely unsuccessful in addressing the problem.

“We are in a state of emergency in terms of malnourishment among mothers and kids,” Dr. Bugti said.

The local government, preoccupied with the deteriorating security situation and extremism has failed to address the basic health issues in the province. A large portion of financial budget was spent on maintaining the law and order rather than improving social indicators such as health, education, drinking water and sanitation.

According to NNS 2011, 36 per cent women were under weight in far-flung areas of Balochistan. However, independent sources put the number much higher than what was being quoted by the NNS 2011.

Multiple pregnancies remained another major factor in troubled and militancy-hit parts of the province. Most of the women in the strictly veiled and tribal society give birth to more than half a dozen children. In absence of proper medical facilities and proper food, most of the women fall prey to various diseases.

“In our social set up, women are prone to anemia more than men because of a poor-diet,” Dr. Abida Niamatullah, a well-known gynecologist said. In Balochistan’s strictly veiled and tribal society, men are served food first and women are supposed to wait for their turn.

During pregnancy and breast feeding, every woman needs extra-nutrition but very few families manage to ensure provision of the required food to expecting women and those breast feeding.

“Most of my patients are anemic,” Dr. Abida said.

Targeted killings, kidnappings and bomb explosions in some areas of the province have displaced a large number families. The internally displaced mothers do not get a proper diet, which compounds their health problems. Subsequently, the anemic women give birth to malnourished children who then battle for survival.

“Both women and children are faced with anemia,” Dr Abida, who serves as a gynecologist in one of the remote areas of Quetta, says.

Besides increasing maternal mortality rate, child mortality rates are also very high in Balochistan as compared to other parts of the country.

“63 out of 1000 newborns die within 28 days of their birth,” Nadeem Shahid, a health expert told Dawn.

Bad governance coupled with conflict and militarisation have deprived people of basic facilities and female doctors, in particular, are reluctant to serve in remote parts of the province. The ailing female segment of the society has been left to nursed by the aged women of villages in terms of treatment.

“Government is determined to ensure provision of proper diet to malnourished women”, Rehmat Baloch, the Balochistan Home Minister tells Dawn.com but tackling the issue is easier said than done.

According to Save the Children’s State of World’s Mothers Report 2014, more than 60 million women and children are in need of humanitarian assistance this year across the globe. Over half of maternal and child deaths world wide occur in crisis affected places. Still the majority of these deaths are preventable; the report said.

Baluchistan has also been under the grip of violent insurgency coupled with religious militancy for more than twelve years now. Women here are in an urgent need of food, shelter and health facilities in different troubled parts of the province..

Cultural barriers make it complicated for mothers to breastfeed their babies. Many are responsible for a large household and often they already have a number of other children to care for.

In rural Balochistan, literacy rate among women is the lowest and they cannot speak for their rights. They remain deprived of economic, social, political and cultural rights in a province that covers half of the country in terms of area.

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