Anita with her mother Kalpana Puddar in Malda district of West Bengal. Kalpana says she and her husband were not doing the right thing by marrying their daughter early. “We thought our daughter would be well off and have a happy life. We were aware that child marriage is illegal, but that is the practice here,” says Kalpana. “But now we know better. All families should take our example.” Credit: UNICEFIndia/2011/lanaslezic©2011
Long recognized for its colourful artistic and political activities, West Bengal plays host to revolutionaries, famous writers, poets and artists who all consider the state to be at India’s cultural centre.
More than 90 million people now live in this relatively small state in India’s east, making it among the most densely populated in the country.
Stretching from the crowded streets of the capital, Kolkata, situated on the Bay of Bengal, to Himalayan hill stations, the state still manages to offer most citizens a better quality of life than many others places in India.
Rates of infant and maternal mortality are lower than national averages. State water and sanitation targets are on track to meet expected norms. West Bengal has also made significant strides in the full immunization of its children and now provides access to education for most students.
But difficult challenges remain.
Currently, UNICEF and state officials are working to address high rates of child malnutrition and anaemia. These can be partly attributed to the high percentage of girls (almost half) who marry before age 18, become teenaged mothers, and adopt poor infant feeding and hygiene practices.
UNICEF is supporting a range of initiatives, including the successful Positive Deviance (PD) programme, popularly known as Keno Parbo Na, meaning 'Why can’t we do it?', that uses collective learning to identify positive nutrition practices by individual families which can be adapted by the larger community. The PD strategy identifies malnourished children aged three and under in disadvantaged communities, arranges medical treatment if necessary, educates mothers about proper nutrition and child care, and follows up in their homes.
UNICEF is also assisting the Government of West Bengal with a range of other issues, including the high incidence of school dropout, child marriage, maternal, newborn and child health in the community, prevention of HIV/AIDS and improving service delivery linkages, access to safe water and sanitation, and the promotion of organized sports for community development.
Challenges and Opportunities
Despite a renewed focus on child survival in West Bengal, the state faces serious challenges as more than 40 per cent of its children under three years are underweight.
Children who are undernourished, not optimally breastfed or suffer from micronutrient deficiencies have lower chances of survival as they are more likely to suffer from serious infection and die from such common childhood illnesses as diarrhoea, measles, pneumonia and malaria, as well as HIV/AIDS. Irreversible damage is also done to their growth, cognitive development, school performance and future productivity.
The problem stems from a range of challenges, including the fact that little more than half of infants are exclusively breastfed for their first six months of life.
Additional issues in West Bengal include infant and maternal mortality rates that are still higher than the national targets although they have improved, water supplies contaminated with arsenic, and high dropout and gender disparity rates in schools.
Other challenges and opportunities:
• The percentage of babies under six months who are exclusively breastfed has more than doubled since the late 1990s but is still just half the total. Only one quarter are breastfed within the first hour of birth, according to recommended practice.
• Neonatal mortality, when a child dies within its first month of life, contributes to almost three quarters of infant deaths and is most prevalent among rural and poor families.
• The proportion of fully immunized children has increased from about half to almost three quarters in recent years.
• The number of expectant mothers who choose institutional deliveries with skilled birth attendants has increased only slightly in the past few years to just less than half the total.
• As many as one third of women don’t receive the three antenatal checkups during pregnancy that they should, and only two thirds get post-natal care within two weeks of delivery.
• Almost two thirds of children under three are anaemic, and more than 60 per cent of pregnant women are anaemic.
• More than half of children aged five to nine fail to complete their primary education.
• Both child marriage and child labour discourage girls’ education. By age 15, one girl out of every five in West Bengal is married. In contrast, one boy out of 100 is married by this age.
• More than one quarter of girls are married to men who are ten or more years older.
• Almost half of female teens are pregnant by age 19.
• About 1.2 million children aged five to 14 years are working illegally, and represent almost five per cent of the state’s total child population.
• The scheduled caste population is almost one quarter of the state´s population and higher than the national average. These children and families face discrimination and exclusion from health, education and many social programmes.
UNICEF in Action
The Government of West Bengal, supported by UNICEF, is successfully addressing a range of issues, including child survival, education, child marriage and malnutrition.
In some disadvantaged districts, UNICEF has supported the creation of nutritional rehabilitation centres, where severely acute malnourished children can receive immediate treatment if necessary. Under the Positive Deviance programme, these children are further monitored in their communities to ensure they continue to receive proper nutrition.
In some underprivileged areas, a popular Sports for Development programme, supported by UNICEF, is now promoting children’s right to play and encouraging them to stay in school and to be active in their communities.
Other UNICEF initiatives include:
• Village health workers are showing families how to administer oral rehydration salts and zinc tablets, supplied by UNICEF, to halt potentially deadly cases of childhood diarrhoea.
• UNICEF supports the government’s Integrated Management of Newborn and Childhood Illnesses programme in select districts and, as a result, more than 70 per cent of infants in this programme now receive home visits from skilled health workers.
• The nationally acclaimed Special Newborn Care Units and Maternal Death Investigation registry, which provides hard data about the causes of mortality, were piloted in West Bengal with UNICEF assistance and have subsequently been extended to districts across the state.
• UNICEF supports routine immunization and now focuses efforts on low-performing districts. As a result, coverage has recently increased from about half to three quarters of the children in these areas.
• UNICEF is providing assistance in ensuring skilled birth attendance, basic emergency obstetric care and training of maternal health care providers.
• Insecticide treated bed nets are being supplied to pregnant women where there is a high malaria prevalence.
Education, Child Protection and HIV/AIDS
• UNICEF supports the government’s mission to improve teaching quality, monitor and improve access to education for girls and scheduled caste and tribal children across West Bengal.
• To eradicate child marriage, UNICEF is helping the state to create an action plan that includes keeping girls in school and expanding their economic opportunities to ensure marriage is not seen as the only option, particularly for poor families.
• In one disadvantaged district, a pilot intervention, ‘My Childhood, My Right’ is mobilizing parents, children, teachers and village health care workers against child marriage. Committees are created to investigate possible cases. Child helplines are in place to report any cases of violations. Community mobilization activities through street theatre, posters, wall paintings and community meetings with special focus on self-help group mothers are arranged to raise awareness.
• In another district, more than 100 Child Protection committees have been set up in villages to discuss children’s right to education and the harm caused by child labour and child marriage.
• UNICEF is supporting the Link Workers Scheme (LWS) in 99 villages in one district targeting youth and vulnerable and high risk population for prevention of HIV/AIDS and improving service delivery linkages. About 220 Red Ribbon Clubs have been established that act as hubs to impart information, knowledge and skills among the youth.
UNICEF West Bengal Field Office
UNICEF State Office for West Bengal
219/2, AJC Bose Road
Kolkata 700 017
West Bengal, India
Tel: +91 033 2289-2477, 2289-2511, 2289-2758 - 61
Fax: 033 2289-2510
You can reach staff directly by dialing 033-40151 followed by their individual extensions