Divya Santhanam, Senior State Programme Manager, Population Foundation of India talks about early pregnancies endanger poshan of adolescents
In India, National Nutrition Week is observed every year from September 1 to September 7 to raise public awareness about nutrition and healthy eating. However along with awareness, it is also critical to ensure adequate and equal access to nutrition for all citizens.
Factors like the ongoing pandemic, related financial hardships and a substantial rise in food prices have adversely impacted communities, especially in rural areas and contributed to food and nutrition inequality.
The theme of National Nutrition Week 2021 is ‘feeding smart right from start’ which is an extremely critical part of the work that grassroots organizations do. Be it, through campaigns to promote breastfeeding or educating communities and challenging gender norms to bridge the gender divide and treat sons and daughters equally when it comes to nutrition and education, the message is that well begun is half done. In other words, if we take care of the nutritional needs of our children right from birth through to adolescence, they will grow into healthy and empowered adults.
Unequal gender norms push at risk teenage girls into early marriage, unintended pregnancies and a vicious cycle of malnutrition and compromised reproductive health. These disadvantaged girls experience higher rates of anemia and malnutrition than girls who marry later in life. Poor health outcomes, as a consequence of teen pregnancy also adversely impacts the mother and child throughout their lives. Hence, addressing the issue is critical for breaking the debilitating and vicious cycle of inter-generational malnutrition.
Through Population Foundation of India’s community centric work around reproductive health and family planning, we have also seen a direct link between teen pregnancies and malnutrition in mothers and their babies. Child marriages result not just in unintended pregnancies but also high mortality rates and low nutrition among mothers and infants. Whereas, reducing unintended pregnancies among adolescents gives them time to achieve educational and developmental milestones. Young girls who are able to access education are also able to enjoy more agency over their bodies and life choices.
However, this cannot be achieved without the synergy between government and private stakeholders, policymakers and grassroots organisations. Through collaboration at every level, we can address malnutrition.
Malnutrition and chronic diseases are largely caused by nutritional deficiencies. Malnutrition among children and adolescents in particular is an entrenched issue that continues to challenge the nation. The first National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in 1992-1993 found that India was one of the worst performing countries on child health indicators and while overall rates have improved gradually there is still a lot of work to be done. As per the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey report 2019, 33.4% children below five years are underweight, and 40% are anemic. Similarly, among adolescents aged 10-19 years 28.4% are anemic. The Global Hunger Index (2020) for instance, places India in the 94th place among 107 countries.
There is hope however that with proactive policies and adequate infrastructure, we can change this narrative for good. To address the issue of malnutrition on a macro level, we need to focus on budgetary allocations, as many reports have noted, in the Union Budget 2021-22, the allocation towards child nutrition is just about 0.57 per cent.
To break this cycle of poor health we should deliberate our efforts towards ensuring health services and infrastructure are effective and accessible to our young and adolescents even in the remotest areas. Parallel to this we need to promote health seeking behavior within communities by using social and behaviour change tools and campaigns and most importantly by delivering comprehensive health education. With an equitable dissemination of information and health services, we will succeed in improving the overall health of our adolescents and hence ensuring a bright future for them and nation at large.