Children in West Bengal

The pace of development of the soon to be ‘100 million’ state may not be adequate to cope up with this population dividends in the coming years.

17-year old Rima Bera is high-spirited enough to face threats from her community members for reporting and preventing child marriages.

The challenge

West Bengal is India’s fourth most populous state with 91.3 million, and a fifth of who are poor. It occupies only 2.7 per cent of the total land area of India and this density of population often throws numerous challenges in terms of access and quality of services. By 2021, West Bengal’s population is expected to increase by an additional 10 million, making it a ‘100 million’ state. However, the state’s pace of development may not be adequate to cope up with this population dividends in the coming years. 

West Bengal is among the eight poorest states, which reflect high deprivation levels across social indicators such as health, education and standard of living. However, historically, the state has had a strong Panchayati raj system, which provides an opportunity to influence the realization of children’s rights at the grass roots level.       

Although poverty reduction in the state has been faster after 2005, pockets of high poverty persist within the state. Despite redistributive land reform measures, weak socio-economic and industrial policies impede development, particularly relating to children.

As per Sample Registration System (SRS) 2015 the Neonatal Mortality is at 18 per 1,000 live births. As per National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4, stunting among children under age five is at 32.5 per cent and wasting is at 20.3 per cent. Only 47.5 per cent children are breast fed within the first hour of birth. The state has a high prevalence of childhood anaemia at 54.2 per cent.

The average gross state domestic product growth rate from 2005-06 to 2015-16 has been 10.42 per cent. Despite a consistent increased investment in the social sector, West Bengal continues to show wide variations in human development indicators, along the rural-urban divide and by social groups.

West Bengal’s performance in closing gender gaps is mixed. Schooling and maternal health have improved, yet the child sex ratio is declining, and secondary school completion rates are lower than in many other states. The Scheduled Tribes record higher levels of poverty than others. And, both Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes lag others in schooling and access to basic services.

An estimated 94.6 per cent of households have access to improved drinking water source, and approximately 41.6 per cent of women aged 20-24 years are married before 18 years of age and 18.3 per cent women aged 15-19 years have started childbearing. Over 70 per cent of children in the age group of 3-6 years attend preschool (Source: Rapid Survey on Children 2013-14).

A large proportion of maternal deaths still occur among Muslim, tribal and Scheduled Caste populations. Over the past decade, West Bengal has seen an expansion of the health infrastructure; however, the distribution of health facilities is skewed, and hard-to-reach areas often do not have functional primary health centers.         

Advancing children’s rights and well-being

UNICEF supports the Government in achieving the last miles and reaching out to every child, with special focus on marginalized and hard-to-reach communities.

To address the pockets of disparities and ensure quality services for every child in the state, UNICEF has been working closely with government, civil society organizations and academic institutions efforts to promote the holistic development of women and children, especially from marginalized communities. UNICEF is also working with partners to ensure more visibility and public discourse around children’s issues and advocate for more support, resources and commitments especially for children in need.

West Bengal has made good progress in reducing maternal, child and infant deaths as compared to the national average. Though not stark, geographical disparities along rural-urban and inter-district and gender inequities exist.

Gender discrimination is not seen in immunization coverage among boys and girls but is reflected in the care of newborn babies with only 42 per cent of girls being admitted to special newborn care units.

UNICEF focusses on skilled birth attendance, improving the quality of care, both in delivery rooms and in special newborn care units and scaling up kangaroo mother care. UNICEF also supports the Government to use data from the online monitoring system to identify gaps and improve the quality of community level care and services and strengthen communication for supporting communities to seek institutional delivery and maternal and newborn care practices.

UNICEF has been working closely with the State Government to strengthen the ‘Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)’ and the National Health Mission (NHM) to promote breastfeeding practices and improve infant and young child feeding practices. In addition to these, UNICEF has been working on maternal and adolescent micronutrient supplementation by helping to improve coverage and quality of the Weekly Iron and Folic Acid Supplementation (WIFS) programme.

UNICEF has been supporting the state for addressing the gaps in access and quality of sanitation services, especially in districts and pockets with poor coverage. The emphasis is also on construction and usage of toilets at institutions (schools, health facilities, Anganwadis, etc.) as well as in households which would reinforce the behaviour change and practices. UNICEF also supports relevant departments to undertake water safety planning and testing and monitoring quality of water to ensure safe drinking water across the state.

UNICEF supports the School Education Department and West Bengal Board of Madrasa Education to develop special strategies to mainstream out-of-school children and reduce drop outs and promote school/madrasa-based platforms such as Meena Manch to improve school attendance and ensure retention. UNICEF also supports in building capacities of teachers, educators, government institutions and Anganwadi workers on child-centred, inclusive and gender responsive teaching and learning practices to cater to diverse learning needs.

West Bengal was one of the first states in India to initiate an Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme in 2013.

A senior girl practices boxing at the Kanyashree Club, Gouripur High School, Uluberia, Howrah, West Bengal, India.
A senior girl practices boxing at the Kanyashree Club, Gouripur High School, Uluberia, Howrah, West Bengal, India.

UNICEF is supporting the ECCE programme (Shishu Aloy) to improve the quality of the early childhood education programme by raising awareness on the importance of preschool education to promote enrolment and attendance and enabling parents to provide a supportive home environment for learning. The state has also initiated the ‘Early grade reading and numeracy’ quality improvement programme for Grades 1 and 2 based on child-friendly pedagogical principles.

UNICEF sees investing in the second decade of life as critical to break the inter-generational cycle of multiple deprivations as adolescents have the potential to become change makers and engages with communities and young people for building capacities and platforms to raise awareness against child marriage, trafficking, and violence against children.

UNICEF continues to be an important development partner and is widely recognised by the Government for its critical support for implementation of key flagship programmes on Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child health, Immunization, Nutrition, Water and Sanitation, Education and Child Protection. The State Plan of Action co-led by the Government and UNICEF has helped in addressing gaps and disparities across the programmes affecting the well-being of children in the state.