The Hunger Project




The Cycle of Malnutrition: Determining Factor for India’s Future

The exceptionally high rates of malnutrition in South Asia are rooted deep in the soil of inequality between men and women. — UNICEF, "The Asian Enigma", The Progress of Nations, 1996


The vicious cycle of malnutrition among the women of rural India perpetuates the equally vicious cycle of persistent hunger and poverty for all rural Indians.

India has the second worst rate of child malnutrition in the world, just behind Bangladesh. Low birth weight and child malnutrition are the primary determinants of ill-health and diminished capacity throughout life.

When children are born malnourished and underweight, they are at severe risk in all areas of personal development, health and mental capacity. They are physically weak and lack resistance to disease. They face a lifetime of disabilities, a lowered capacity for learning and diminished productivity.

The cost to India of this deficiency, solely in economic terms, has been estimated to be as much as US$28 billion per year in reduced GDP. This is greater than India’s total annual public expenditures on nutrition and health combined.

This reality is a clear and direct result of the subjugation, marginalization and disempowerment of women throughout their lives.

We should not need to focus exclusively on women as mothers in order to be committed to transforming their status. Yet, in their role as mothers, they do represent the most critical link in the chain of human well-being and development.

It is widely recognised that the health and nutritional status of a pregnant woman dramatically affects the health of her baby. A more accurate scientific understanding, however, reveals that this is only part of the story. The truth is that a woman’s health, from the time she is in her own mother’s womb, is the single most important factor in determining the health of her child.

With this knowledge, it is clear that traditional responses to child malnutrition, such as simply providing nutritional supplements to pregnant women, are both inadequate and ultimately futile. If India is to interrupt the cycle of persistent hunger, the lifetime health and nutritional status of women must improve dramatically.

This, in turn, means transforming the way women are treated in the family and society as a whole:


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