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Hunger and malnutrition among girls in Nepal

Fifteen per cent of the world’s population goes to bed hungry at night. The latest ‘World Disasters Report 2011’ from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reviews the critical issues surrounding these 925 million people who don’t have enough to eat, including the problem of rising global food prices.

Focusing particularly on the smallholders who supply food for half the world, the authors of the ICRC report highlight the need for more investment to help small farmers and also action against ‘land grabs’ and the abuse of land rights.

The report also calls for more attention to be focused on preventable malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Each year, three million children die before their fifth birthday from under-nutrition, many in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent. While in many cases it is a question of getting enough food on the table, the authors acknowledge complex environmental and institutional issues which need to be addressed such as gender discrimination, described as “one of the most pernicious causes of malnutrition”.

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s undernourished people are women. And in some countries, girls are twice as likely as boys to die from malnutrition and preventable childhood diseases. This stems from the low status of women, who are disadvantaged from birth. Girls often receive less food, healthcare and education and considered an economic burden, are frequently married off young. Girls who fall pregnant in their teens stop developing physically and are more at risk from experiencing complications in delivery and bearing low birth-weight babies. 

Nepal is one country where gender discrimination lies behind much of the malnutrition among women and children under five. IRIN recently reported on preliminary findings from the Nepal Demographic Health Survey which found that 29 per cent of children under five are malnourished and in some remote regions, rates are over 50 per cent. The problem is particularly acute among girls, who are not thought to require strength and often take a backseat at the meal table. Boys and husbands eat first and are given the best food, while girls and women rely on the leftovers. Nevertheless, they carry out many heavy labouring chores and are expected to do so even while pregnant.

Various agencies, such as the World Food Programme, are working in Nepal to improve the diet of women and bolster their position in society in general, so they have adequate rest and care. Pregnant women are particularly being targeted for support. The period between conception and birth has a huge influence on a child’s birth-weight and future development. Therefore working to ensure pregnant women have adequate nourishment improves not only the well-being of the mother, but also the child and helps break the vicious cycle of malnutrition.

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