By David Ponet
KAMPALA, Uganda, 5 April 2012 – An estimated 180 million children across the globe are stunted, the outcome of chronic nutritional deficiency during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Karin Bridger reports on UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake's visit to Kampala, Uganda, to highlight malnutrition. Watch in RealPlayer|
“The damage it causes to a child’s development is irreversible,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said, addressing the opening plenary session of the 126th Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Assembly in Kampala, Uganda.
Over 600 parliamentarians from more than 100 countries participated at the IPU. The Assembly brings together over 120 parliaments and is a critical UNICEF partner in mobilizing parliamentarians on behalf of the world’s children.
A global inequality
Stunting often begins during pregnancy, with effects lasting throughout the course of a child’s life. Stunted children will not only be shorter than they would be otherwise, they will also face cognitive impairments affecting their ability to learn and earn.
“I can’t think of any greater inequity than condemning children, while in the womb, to a loss of their ability, of their right, to live fully… to learn fully… and to realize their potential,” said Mr. Lake.
When children who are stunted enter the workforce, they lose more than 10 per cent of their lifetime earnings. The consequences of this are far-reaching. According to the Word Bank, stunting can cost countries 2 to 3 per cent of their gross domestic product.
|© UNICEF video|
|Doctors speak with a mother and her child at a nutrition centre in Kampala, Uganda.|
In many countries, stunting prevalence exceeds 30 per cent, even 40 per cent, and in six countries more than half of all children are stunted. It is a silent global emergency that traps individuals, families, communities, and nations in an intergenerational cycle of poverty.
While it is impossible to cure stunting, preventing it is relatively easy: provide adequate food and nutrients, and prevent and treat disease. Pregnant women should receive vitamins and minerals that may be lacking in their daily diet, and infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.
Prompting action at the highest levels
“In 2008, eight of the world’s leading economists, including five Nobel Laureates, in the so-called Copenhagen Consensus, recommended priorities for confronting the top ten global challenges. They ranked providing young children with micronutrients the number one most cost-effective way to advance global welfare,” Mr. Lake reminded attendees at the Assembly.
“As parliamentarians, you are in a unique position to advocate for nutrition policies, to influence pro-nutrition legislation, to increase budget allocations for nutrition programmes, and to hold governments and partners accountable,” he added.
|© UNICEF video|
|A child plays on a swing outside a nutrition centre in Kampala, Uganda.|
The IPU and UNICEF organized a panel discussion at the Assembly to address the role of parliaments in tackling malnutrition. Janet Kataaha Museveni, the First Lady of Uganda and a member of Uganda’s Parliament, chaired the event. She implored the parliamentarians to remember their obligation to educate their constituents about healthy feeding practices and the importance of nutrition.
Speaker of the Parliament of Tanzania Anne Makinda attended the panel and said it is unacceptable that food secure countries still have high rates of malnutrition and stunting.
UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink served as one of the panelists. He lauded the progress made by several countries that have joined the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, and he urged others to join. The SUN movement consists of more than 100 organizations, countries and private sector entities, and supports countries as they take action to prioritize nutrition security in their national programmes.
Parliamentarians visit nutrition centres
As part of the Assembly, parliamentarians also visited UNICEF-supported projects in the greater Kampala area, witnessing first-hand community-based management of acute malnutrition services. Parliamentarians interacted with children and caregivers affected by malnutrition, gaining a better understanding of their plight. According to the preliminary findings of the 2011 Uganda Demographic Health Survey, 33 per cent of children under age 5 are stunted.
At the close of the session, Ms. Museveni echoed Mr. Lake’s message, exhorting her fellow parliamentarians from around the globe to take action. “We know what to do,” she said. “The time to act is now.”