Towering, colourful temples and ancient Dravidian culture are among Tamil Nadu’s best-known historical attributes while high industrial growth in recent decades marks its present personality.
The state is also recognized for performing well in the areas of child survival and social development. Mortality rates for infants, children under five, and new mothers are lower here than the Indian averages. The percentage of families living below the poverty line is also less than the national average.
About 66 million people live in Tamil Nadu, which wraps around the southeastern coastline of India. It was this Coromandel seashore that was hardest hit in India when a tsunami swept ashore in 2004, obliterating fishing villages and killing thousands, of which one third were children.
UNICEF played a key role in the disaster’s aftermath, providing water storage tanks and oral rehydration salts to prevent deadly diarrhoea outbreaks, and giving students books and uniforms so they were back to school within three weeks. Subsequent initiatives included counselling for thousands of children and support for orphans’ shelters.
Currently, UNICEF is assisting with training and programmes to tackle the state’s nutrition and health challenges. About one third of children younger than three are considered underweight, while two thirds of all children are anaemic. Only about one third of mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months.
Since school access, student enrolment and teacher attendance are now exemplary in Tamil Nadu, UNICEF is working with the state to improve education quality by promoting creativity and fun in classrooms.
UNICEF assistance is also offered through the parent to child HIV prevention programme, to HIV-affected children and young people trafficked for labour, and to promote sanitation and toilet use in communities.
Challenges and Opportunities
While some Tamil Nadu social initiatives are models for the rest of India, the rates of child malnutrition and neonatal mortality remain major concerns. Although infant mortality rates are lower than the national average, currently, almost three quarters of infant deaths in the state occur within 28 days of birth.
Although breast milk gives infants valuable immunities against disease, the exclusive breastfeeding rate is lower here than the national average.
About half of the state’s women are also iron-deficient or anaemic, making them prone to delivering low birth weight babies.
Further challenges include the need for improved quality of education, particularly for scheduled caste and tribal children, a disturbing downward trend in the child sex ratio in some districts that indicates increased female foeticide, and high levels of ground water contamination.
Other challenges and opportunities:
• Almost two thirds of Tamil Nadu’s children are anaemic and about one third are undernourished, which make them more susceptible to serious illness.
• While the state has created drinking water sources for almost all its citizens, the level of bacteriological contamination is increasing, particularly in rural areas where sanitation and hygiene practices are inadequate.
• More than three quarters of rural households do not have toilets while about one quarter of the urban population do not have toilets.
• Of toilets already constructed, only one third of family members use them, while others defecate in the open.
• Only about one quarter of caregivers wash their hands before feeding children, while only one third of children, aged six to 14, wash their hands with soap on their own.
• Education quality remains a concern. A study found that one third of students in Class 8 could only read at Class 2 levels, while only half could do subtraction and division.
• While three quarters of the state’s population are literate, rates are much lower for tribal and scheduled caste children who experience discrimination in schools and society.
• Strong political commitment for eradicating HIV/AIDs in the state is stabilizing the epidemic here. It’s estimated about 250,000 people are infected, including 5,000 children.
• Despite strides in women’s development, the state’s child sex ratio in certain districts is exhibiting a downward trend, indicating infanticide and female foeticide.
• A huge inflow of migrants and their children working in labour intensive sectors such as construction, brick kilns and cotton seed production is the new challenge in child labour.
• Child protection challenges include a high percentage of reported sexual abuse along with unregulated privately-run homes as well as issues regarding homeless and disabled children.
• While the state average on child marriage is about 10 per cent, it goes up to as high as 30 per cent in some districts.
• The state ranks among the highest in reported cases of violence against women.
• Certain coastal districts are threatened by cyclones every year.
UNICEF in Action
For four decades, UNICEF has worked in Tamil Nadu to improve the lives of women, children and their families, helping the state make significant gains in child survival, education and human development.
Now, UNICEF is focused on further improving child survival and nutrition by supporting programmes to train health workers on infant and young child feeding and survival.
Concerns about neonatal mortality rates are being addressed as baby friendly hospital initiatives are revived, Special Newborn Care Units established, and programmes encourage exclusive breastfeeding and early recognition of childhood illnesses.
UNICEF is assisting with improvements to school education quality, the retention of students and prevention of dropouts.
Initiatives are also underway to support the state’s Total Sanitation Campaign, to encourage household toilet use, and to help monitor quality of drinking water.
UNICEF initiatives include:
• Training of village health workers to teach families about proper infant and child feeding practices through the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme.
• Promotion of vitamin A and iron supplements for malnourished and anaemic children.
• Pilots in disadvantaged districts to extend outreach of essential services including the promotion of iodized salt.
• Helping to establish the Integrated Management of Neonatal and Childhood Illnesses programme (IMNCI) in three districts, and supporting state efforts to extend units to more than a dozen districts. The programme trains village health workers to visit new mothers and teach them to recognize and seek early treatment and referral for childhood illnesses. It also encourages exclusive breastfeeding.
• Promotion of institutional deliveries and conducting childbirth with skilled birth attendants.
• Facilitating the establishment of emergency obstetric and newborn centres, and helping the State Government to conduct on-the-job training programmes to develop capacity of doctors and nurses at these centres.
• Pilots for community water quality monitoring with field test kits.
• Educational campaigns to improve household sanitation and water quality, and infant and young child feeding and immunization.
• Introduction of ecological sanitation at schools with assistance from NGO partners.
• Strengthening the criteria for defining model villages given ‘open defecation free’ status and monitoring their status for toilet use and household hygiene.
• Supporting activity-based learning initiatives to improve education quality.
• Assistance to improve teaching skills through training programmes.
• Technical support for reading programmes in Tamil and English.
• Follow up on child labourers and student dropouts, particularly girls and children from scheduled caste and tribal groups, and providing their classroom materials.
Child Protection and HIV/AIDS
• Assisting with a comprehensive child protection programme in disadvantaged districts.
• Monitoring the status of child labourers and advocacy to enhance the scope of child labour laws.
• Supporting adolescent education programmes about HIV/AIDS prevention in all high schools.
• Helping to create more than 1,300 centres for the Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission of HIV (PPTCT) that provide early testing of mothers and infants, and drug therapy.
Address for Chennai Field Office
United Nations Children's Fund
37/15, 2nd Main Road
Kasturibai Nagar, Adyar,
Chennai - 600020,Tamil Nadu, India