A RECENT flagship report by Unicef looks into patterns of food and nutrition intake by children around the world. The findings are disquieting, particularly when it comes to the state of children’s health in South Asia. The region has been marked ‘red’ on the United Nations map. The organisation warns that nearly half of all children are not receiving a sufficient diet — the highest global figure in this regard. Poor consumption patterns lead to issues with growth, cognitive impairments, and go on to negatively impact the region’s economies. According to the report, titled The State of the World’s Children, approximately 409,000 children under the age of five died last year in Pakistan. Meanwhile, our neighbours India and Afghanistan recorded 882,000 and 74,000 deaths respectively in the same period. The region shows disproportionately high rates of chronic malnutrition, wasting and stunting.
Are policymakers paying attention to these figures? Pakistan hosts the world’s fifth largest population, and the majority is young. Despite malnutrition affecting such a large portion of the total population, the issue rarely features in public discourse or political speeches, taking a back seat to the demands of realpolitik and more ‘glamorous’ topics. When Prime Minister Imran Khan was elected to power last year, many pinned their hopes on him to give such matters their due importance. In his victory speech after last year’s general polls, observers were pleasantly surprised to see him highlight a very neglected public issue — the high rates of stunting among the nation’s children. A year later, we have not seen the topic raised again by him, despite several new studies and reports being published on the extent of the problem. While this government has announced an ambitious social welfare programme, a lot of work is needed on the ground. Many of these issues are interconnected. For instance, the appalling health and growth indicators amongst children are linked to poor water and sanitation supplies, or lesser acknowledged gender disparities within households. Poverty is also endemic in the region, which leads to families under-investing in proper diets. There is also a lack of awareness of what even consists of nutritious food, while access to health facilities remains out of the reach of many families, particularly in far-flung rural areas. With the growing population showing no signs of slowing down, this country’s children and their futures need to be accorded top priority.
Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2019