Children born to the poorest households, living in rural areas and from socially excluded and disadvantaged families are the most vulnerable to stunting and wasting. Children become stunted if their mothers were undernourished during pregnancy, if they are unable to consume sufficient nutritious food in early life, or if they suffer repeated infections. Often, these factors combine in the same child.
Stunting signals that a child has been deprived of essential nutrition, a strong immune system, and healthy brain development. Stunted children do less well at school and are less productive as adults. This reduces their earnings, keeps families in poverty, and holds back a nation’s development and prosperity. Stunted children are also more likely to suffer from diet-related non-communicable diseases later in life, such as diabetes and chronic heart disease.
About half of adolescent girls are underweight, anaemic or both, and up to one in six are too thin. In South Asia, the young age at which many girls first become pregnant, combined with their poor education, inadequate decision-making power and poor control over resources, means that many enter pregnancy with bodies unable to support healthy foetal growth.
Exclusive breastfeeding immediately after delivery until six months of age provides infants with nutrients and protects them against diseases. Less than two-thirds of infants in South Asia benefit from exclusive breastfeeding, and over half are not breastfed from within the first hour of life. Less than half of children aged 6-23 months are fed the minimum number of meals a day.
There were over 600 million people practicing open defecation in South Asia in 2015, and handwashing practices are far from optimal. Poor sanitation and hygiene conditions contribute to poor growth during childhood by causing infections that lead to the loss of precious nutrients.