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Young girls in India face increased risks from anaemia

In February this year, the International Food Policy Research Institute held a conference in Delhi to discuss ways in which agriculture can improve health.

In papers presented at the conference, studies showed that levels of malnutrition fall as agricultural earnings rise. However, growth in agriculture does not necessarily reduce the number of stunted children in developing countries. This is because poor families continue to rely on staples such as rice and wheat, which don’t provide all the nutritional elements needed. The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, attended the conference and warned “malnutrition is a complex process in which habits regarding feeding....are at least equally important”.

In India, adolescents now make up almost a fifth of the country’s population (at 243 million). Malnutrition among the young is a huge problem, particularly in girls. India has the highest prevalence of malnourished adolescent girls worldwide (among all countries with available data), with 47 per cent of girls aged 15-19 underweight (having a body mass index of 18.5 or less). Surveys also show over half of Indian girls in this age bracket are anaemic.

This situation has disastrous implications. Over forty per cent of girls are married or in a union before the age of 18 (though 18 is the legal age for marriage) and face increased risks during pregnancy if they are anaemic or underweight. According to the recent ‘State of the World’s Children’ report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), anaemia is the main indirect cause of maternal deaths in India, which stood at 230 for every 100,000 births in 2008.

The government of India, in partnership with organisations such as UNICEF, began a programme in 2000 to reduce the prevalence of anaemia in girls by providing iron and folic acid supplements. As part of the programme, information is also provided to girls about how to widen their diet and improve nutritional levels. Schools and community centres have been used as a delivery channel for this programme, which was expected to cover 20 million adolescent girls by 2010. Other non-governmental organisations, such as the Centre for Health Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (CHETNA) are also focusing on how to improve the health of children and particularly girls, hoping to break the cycle of nutritional deprivations which are often passed from one generation to the next.

Despite all the ongoing work of such agencies, as the UNICEF report states “ensuring the nutritional, health and educational needs of its adolescent population, particularly girls, remains a key challenge for India.” Without improvements to the health of its young population, the report concludes that India will not reap the potential demographic rewards of its youthful society.

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