Tackling stunting

Published October 7, 2020

AT least four out of 10 children in Pakistan are unlikely to ever meet their cognitive and developmental potential. That is a shocking prospect. And yet, it is borne out by the statistics for childhood stunting — 44pc nationally, third highest in the world — a condition that results in this dire outcome. Prime Minister Imran Khan at the outset of his tenure had laid emphasis on the importance of tackling this issue. In his inaugural speech, he had held up an X-ray scan of a stunted child’s brain alongside that of a normal one. The brain of the affected child was clearly smaller, a black-and-white projection of the enormous cost of this pernicious condition. Stunting results from chronic malnutrition in the first two years of life; when mothers are malnourished during and post pregnancy; where unsanitary practices prevail; and because of inadequate psychosocial stimulation. Hearteningly, it appears the PTI government has started work on tackling the problem of childhood stunting in a substantive way.

On Monday, the prime minister chaired the first meeting of the Pakistan National Nutrition Coordination Council and asked his special assistants on health and social protection to devise, in consultation with the provinces, a comprehensive road map to prevent stunting. The prevalence of this condition varies from province to province but nowhere is it any less than alarming. According to the National Nutrition Survey 2018, in KP (including tribal districts) 48.3pc of children are stunted; in Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan 46.6pc each; in Sindh 45.5pc; in Punjab 36.4pc; in Azad Kashmir 39.3pc; and in Islamabad 32.6pc. In the first phase of the government’s plan, 36 Ehsaas Development Centres have already been set up in nine districts to provide food to meet the nutritional requirements of mothers and newborns. It is instructive, and poignant, how so many consequences flow from the second-class status accorded to women in this society. A significant percentage of stunting occurs in utero, because of maternal malnutrition and the lack of importance generally accorded to the health of women. Millions of girls grow up watching their brothers being given the choicest morsels at mealtimes while they eat the leftovers later. Unsurprisingly, more than 50pc of adolescent girls in South Asia are anaemic or underweight. One hopes a more holistic approach, which not only takes all the provinces along but also addresses gender-based social prejudices, is put in place to bring down stunting rates. The country’s future depends on it.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2020

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