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Changing attitudes about malnutrition and gender equality in India

© UNICEF video
At the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre in Kolaras, parents are taught skills to care for their children’s nutritional needs and urged to pass the life-saving information on to their communities.

By Amy Bennett

KOLARAS, India, 30 October 2007 – When nine-month-old twins Devki and Rahul were brought by their mother to the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre in Kolaras – located in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh  Rahul was a normal weight and size for his age, yet his sister Devki weighed just over half of what she should have. Devki’s condition was the result of severe malnutrition.

Both babies showed such varied weight and health that doctors suspected less food was given to Devki, a common occurrence in some areas of India where boys are often given more attention than girls.

When Devki was initially brought to the centre she was severely underweight, and doctors said she was a week away from death. Experts believe this case exemplifies a far more widespread social problem in cities and villages where, in many cases, the birth of boys is celebrated while newborn girls are at best tolerated and at worst, treated harshly.

Low status of women

India and other South Asian countries are doing poorly overall in areas of adequate nutrition. Contributing to this problem is the perceived low status of women and the lack of nutritional knowledge, which adds to the high prevalence of underweight children in the region.

© UNICEF video
A mother learns how to prepare healthy food at the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre.

According to a UNICEF report, half of the world's undernourished children live in South Asia. In India, 30 per cent of children are born with low birth weight and almost 50 per cent remain underweight by the age of three.

One of the Millennium Development Goals is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, which would mean halving the proportion of children who are underweight for their age. UNICEF has warned that the world is not on track to meet that goal.

Teaching healthy, life-saving practices

For undernourished children in villages like Kolaras, the causes of this debilitating and life-threatening condition range from lack of access to healthy food to gender discrimination. At the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre, mothers are taught how to prepare healthy, high-calorie, high-protein food – and are urged to take new recipes and cooking practices back with them to their villages.

Meanwhile, twins Devki and Rahul have arrived back home in Kolaras, where two health advisers are to monitor the girl’s progress every week. If Devki’s condition deteriorates, she'll be taken back to the centre for more direct care. But the hope is that with changing attitudes and better care, she will be just as healthy as her twin brother.




UNICEF’s Anwulika Okafor reports on severe levels of malnutrition affecting children, especially girls, in India.
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