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Pakistan reels as global financial crises hits poor families hard

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0591/Ramoneda
A displaced boy holds his bowl out during food distribution in Aloha camp in Nowshera district, North-West Frontier Province. Families affected by conflict are especially vulnerable to inadequate nutrition, especially with rising food prices.

By Sam Taylor

KARACHI, Pakistan, 29 May 2009 – As she places a chronically malnourished child on a weighing scale in the hospital ward she runs, Dr. Noreen Anwar has no doubt that the economic crisis that started in far-off lands is now having a direct and devastating effect on her most fragile patients.

“Because of the global crisis, my estimation is that there has been an increase of 30 per cent in the number of malnourished children,” said Dr An war, head the busy malnutrition clinic in the Sindh Government Children’s Hospital in Karachi.

“This is because families have reduced their number of meals or food intake,” she added.

Families take desperate measures

Food and fuel insecurity, and the effects of the world financial crisis, are turning an already bad situation in this part of Pakistan far worse. With 38 per cent of children moderately or severely underweight even before food and fuel prices spiked, the increases have started to push the country’s poorest dangerously close to the point of no return.

Once families start using desperate means to cope in times of an emergency – measures such as skipping meals and taking children out of school – it is much harder for them to return to their prior status, experts say.

A UN interagency study last year found that just over half of Pakistan’s population did not have enough to eat as a result of the price hikes. Staple food prices rose by more than a third between March 2007 and March 2008, while workers’ wages increased by less than 20 per cent.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0548/Ramoneda
Displaced children crowd an ice truck during a distribution in the Swab camp in North-West Frontier Province. Nearly 5,000 people are living in the UNICEF-supported camp.

As a result, millions of Pakistanis have been pushed back into poverty. Children are being forced out of school and into the workplace, and parents are skimping on vital medical expenses in order to deal with the high prices, the UN study found.

Flour prices triple
As Tasleem Mondy, 20, received fortified milk for her 18-month-old son from staff at Dr. Anwar’s malnutrition clinic recently, she talked about how the food price hikes had hit her family.

“I used to be able to buy 10-kilogram bags of flour, but now I have to buy one kilo at a time, which is a lot more expensive,” she said. Two years ago, 10 kilograms of flour cost 130 rupees ($1.6); today, the price has almost tripled to 360 rupees ($4.5) per kilo.

To reach the clinic, Ms. Mondy carries her frail son an hour each way, as she cannot afford the bus fare. She is worried that his health will suffer if he stops receiving the fortified milk.

“My husband has had a salary raise in his job as a labourer in the last year, but our financial situation is worse than before because of the price rises,” she said.

Combined crises
As a result of the global financial crisis, inflation remains high in Pakistan and GDP growth is predicted to be a low 1.5 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile, more than 2 million people – the largest number displaced since Pakistan’s partition from India in 1947 – have been forced to leave their homes by the worsening conflict between government forces and militants in the Swat and Buner districts.

In response to the growing levels of hunger caused by the combined crises, UNICEF has established treatment centres in 11 of Pakistan’s worst-affected districts.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0570/Brooks
A toddler, Adel, lies with his injured mother on a cot in hospital in Marian district, North-West Frontier Province. She and a relative in the next cot were injured during the fighting in Swat district.

“We are promoting optimal feeding practices as well as using social mobilization to try and bring about behaviour change, and treating acute malnutrition,” said UNICEF Pakistan Nutrition Specialist Dr. Sarita Neupane.

Impact on child survival
Tackling malnutrition from conception to the age of two is essential, as this age range determines a child’s long-term development.

“Many children are born malnourished in Pakistan, and combined with inadequate hygiene, sanitation and feeding practices, this increases child mortality,” said Dr. Neupane.

Even before the price rises forced millions back into poverty, Pakistan’s infant mortality rate was one of the highest in South Asia.

“Malnutrition in very young children leads to lower mental and physical development, which can mean worse school performance and overall productivity,” explained Dr. Nepean.



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