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Changing practices to ensure healthier children in Nepal

Nearly half of all under-fives in Nepal are stunted, with many children also severely malnourished.

New national data from Nepal recently revealed that 16% of households across the country were food insecure in 2011, causing 16% of under-fives to be acutely malnourished.

However, health experts believe that poor nutritional practices are also partly to blame for the huge problem of malnutrition in Nepal. A recent report published by the World Food Programme states that under-nutrition is found in even the wealthiest households, suggesting that the availability of food and household income aren’t the only factors affecting the weight and health of children.

A review conducted by USAID found, for example, that there was a common belief across Nepal that if pregnant women ate a lot of food, this would lead to a difficult delivery. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, a leader in nutrition at the UN’s Child Agency, UNICEF, explained that poor eating by pregnant mothers can “lead to inadequate foetal growth ultimately leading to stunting in children by the age of two”.

Compounding this misconception about food intake during pregnancy, women in Nepal tend to eat less well than men generally. In the hierarchy of families, male members of a household will usually receive food first. And when they start to eat solids, it’s common for young children to “eat off the plate of a parent, often the mother” according to a community health volunteer in Nepal. This practice can lead to a more restricted diet for both women and children.

Government officials in Nepal are hoping to address cultural beliefs and attitudes which contribute to malnutrition in the 2013 draft strategy for infant and young child feeding. According to UNICEF, this should help to close information gaps about nutrition and correct “misunderstandings and mistreatment” of youngsters. This work is in the interests not only of children and individual families, but also for Nepalese society as a whole. The World Bank estimates that malnutrition could be costing developing countries up to 3% of their yearly gross domestic product, due to factors such as adults being less productive having experienced problems with learning at school and strains on health systems created by the poor health of children. This kind of cost is one which Nepal can ill afford to bear.

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