GIVEN that Pakistan has the third largest population of stunted children in the world, the government’s plan to expand the Ehsaas Nashonuma programme from 14 districts to the rest of the country is a step in the right direction. Food insecurity and stunting pose a grave challenge to social and economic progress. Stunting in Pakistan affects at least four out of 10 children under the age of five. The condition affects the mental, physical and cognitive development of the affected children who are not able to reach their full mental and physical potential. A further 29pc of children remain underweight while 18pc suffer from ‘wasting’ — low weight-for-height ratio indicative of weight loss owing to inadequate nutrition. Unicef has described this situation as a “rising emergency”.

Can the situation be turned around for Pakistan’s children? Certainly Prime Minister Imran Khan has given this problem due priority and raised it in his maiden speech as prime minister, showing on national television X-rays of the brains of two children, one normal and the other who had suffered the effects of stunting. The brain X-ray of the stunted child was clearly smaller than the normal one, depicting the damaging effect. It was against this background that the Ehsaas Nashonuma programme was initiated in August 2020 in nine districts of the country that had the highest stunting rates. The programme was later expanded to 14 districts, where 50 Nashonuma centres have so far registered more than 66,000 lactating women and children under two years of age to receive nutritional support in the form of cash. The authorities plan to set up mobile Nashonuma centres for the most hard-to-reach and backward areas. This is a smart decision, because in our society, women face a lot of difficulties in being able to leave the premises of their home. Besides children, women too have a greater need for nutritional support. According to the National Nutrition Survey 2018, at least 14pc women of reproductive age are undernourished, naturally leading to the birth of underweight infants. Though the expansion of Eshaas Nashonuma is laudable, it is debatable whether the programme by itself addresses the root causes of stunting. The government needs to adopt a holistic strategy by simultaneously addressing the issues of maternal health, high birth rate and skyrocketing prices of food staples in the country. Unless the government addresses these issues, the success of Ehsaas Nashonuma programme will be limited.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2021

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