The State of the World's Children 1998: Features

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Child malnutrition and women's rights

In South Asia, where half of all children are underweight, 60 per cent of women themselves are underweight. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly one third of children are malnourished, and 20 per cent of women are underweight. About 24 million low-birthweight babies are born every year, most of them in developing countries. Their mothers are usually underweight or overworked or were themselves stunted by inadequate nutrition during their own childhood. These babies face a greater risk of dying than heavier babies. If they survive, they may face learning problems and they are also more likely to become malnourished.

As these figures attest, the tragedy of childhood malnutrition is rooted in part in the discrimination and disempowerment so many women endure. What endangers women endangers children too, according to The State of the World's Children 1998 report, and full commitment to the rights of women is one of the best ways of protecting children's well-being and nutritional development.

To end childhood malnutrition, important questions must be answered: Is a mother in good health? Was she educated as a girl? Is she literate as a woman? How much of an effort has her society made to convey essential information about nutrition, diet, child care, personal and environmental hygiene and the importance of breastfeeding? Do her family and community relieve her of some of her burdens while she is pregnant and breastfeeding, allowing her to get the rest she needs? And is she afforded the same access as men to education, employment and resources?

Sadly, the answer to these questions is often no, and the discrimination and deprivation suffered by women becomes their children's inheritance, all too often in the form of malnutrition, illness and even death. The unequal distribution of tasks and the disproportionate burden women carry in households around the world makes them less able to protect their own health and that of their children. For example, a woman's ability to eat well and rest before and during pregnancy is essential to both her health and that of the developing child. But as one study in West Africa pointed out, a woman who is pregnant even during off-peak agricultural periods gains on average only 5.5 kilograms during pregnancy, about half of the weight gain recommended in most industrialized countries.

The oppression of women socially and culturally means they have less access to everything, including food, resources, health care, community support and information. The result is that it is all but impossible for a mother to provide high-quality child care, however much she loves her children, if she herself is poor, illiterate, anaemic and unhealthy, has neither safe water nor sanitation and lacks the support of the father of her children and of her society as a whole. Yet consistent and attentive care is the right of each child and, if denied, perhaps one of the most significant factors determining whether a child will be malnourished.

There is no single solution for the interrelated global crises of the infringement of women's rights and child malnutrition. The problems arise from cultural, political and economic realities that must be addressed in tandem. However, one crucial step on the road to change is to inform, to educate and to challenge conventions that imprison women in prejudices and poverty and thus contribute to the dire problem of malnutrition.

There are important examples of where this has succeeded. Nutrition, for example, has improved dramatically in Thailand. Linked to a booming economy at that time, the change has also been attributed to the fact that women are respected in Thai society, enjoying high literacy rates and playing a central role in the home and in the life of the community.

The war on childhood malnutrition must be fought on many fronts. But, as is growing ever clearer, it will never be won unless women's rights are assured, enabling women to play their leading role.

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