by Meera Satpathy
Women and children as we already know, are bearing a disproportionate burden of the pandemic induced health and food crisis. At last count, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 202O report, India had about 189.2 million undernourished people, majority of whom are women and children. Despite government programmes, fast-track interventions and task forces, malnutrition and the widespread prevalence of stunting, wasting and nutritional deficiencies among women and children continues to figure prominently in the Global Hunger Index.
Malnutrition is certainly not a new issue. It has been consistently prevalent despite economic development. As per government data, in 2019, India ranked 102 of 117 countries in the global hunger index and its hunger situation was labelled as “severe.” Further, India’s childhood malnutrition rate is twice that of sub-Saharan Africa wherein over 45% children suffer from stunted growth due to their lack of sufficient nutrients that are necessary for development.
Undernourished mothers trigger cycles of undernutrition
According to the report, in 2016, nearly 51.4% women of reproductive age in India were suffering from anemia. The prevalence of undernutrition and anemia among almost half the women, especially pregnant women, puts a serious burden on the country’s food security. This is largely because undernourished mothers can trigger cycles of undernutrition by passing on nutrient and vitamin deficiencies to newborn babies. Approximately 60 million—which is roughly half of all children in the country are underweight, about 45% stunted, 21% wasted, 57% Vitamin A deficient and 75% anemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has threatened India’s food security landscape across the four indicators of availability, access, stability and utilisation of resources. Each of these has serious ramifications on the nutrition of women and children. The country-wide and state lockdowns have caused sudden cessation of economic activity and triggered large-scale unemployment. The disruption of food supply chains, labour shortages, limited production and restricted mobility are having a direct bearing on the food and nutrition consumption of adolescent girls, pregnant women, new mothers, women in general and children.
When there is a dire shortage of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and eggs there is inevitable impact on the nutrient supply to pregnant women and new mothers. This in turn accelerates undernutrition and lowers immunity which acquires a great deal more significance during a pandemic like COVID-19. It also means that these malnourished women and children are then more vulnerable to other deficiencies, infections and diseases that may be afflicted upon them in the immediate to medium term. The global community’s failure to act now will have devastating long-term consequences for children, human capital and national economies. India may well be ‘on course’ to meet the two targets for maternal, infant and young child nutrition (MIYCN) but not enough progress has been made towards achieving the target of reducing anemia among women of reproductive age, with 51.4% women aged 15 to 49 years now clearly affected.
Children in rural and semi urban settings who rely on supplementary meals in schools have also been hard hit. Under normal circumstances, they were guaranteed at least one nutritious meal under India’s government-funded school lunch programme be it at as part of the Mid-day meal in school or the anganwadi centre. After the imposed lockdown about 115 million children, dependent on school lunches to fulfill their daily nutrient requirements, no longer had access to this service. In addition to damaging the economy and people’s ability to buy food, the COVID-19 lockdown has halted state-run services that previously helped people in need access nutritious meals.
Now, once India loosens its COVID-19 restrictions, it will be imperative for children and women to once again gain access to crucial services. Sukarya’s volunteers and project staff that has been working closely with the slum colonies of Delhi, Gurugram and Rajasthan have relentlessly counselled local communities to strengthen their coping mechanisms. With respect to building their resilience towards food intake and nutrition they have guided them. Their experience on the ground has demonstrated that people in an emergency situation like COVID end up purchasing less food, substituting wholesome food with less nutritious alternatives and decreasing the number of meals eaten on a day-to-day basis. This is not a planned decision rather it is a spontaneous response. A reduction in financial security risks increasing gaps in intra-household distribution of resources, which could further negatively impact women in the household.
5-point agenda for building food resiliency amongst the urban and rural poor
There are clear pathways in which the pandemic intersects with a fragile food and nutrition security landscape in India. Together, this will very likely have a disproportionate impact on women and children, as detailed above. Conversations around how resiliency can be built into addressing the widening gender gap in access to nutrition must thus play a bigger part in policy considerations.
As a committed NGO that has been serving its communities without any break in its two decade plus of existence, Sukarya is issuing a call for action to protect women and children’s right to nutrition in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. It appeals to funding support from governments, donors, the private sector, student alumni associations, individuals, influencers and others so that the following five urgent actions can be taken:
- Safeguard and promote access to nutritious, safe and affordable diets for infants, adolescent girls, pregnant women and their families
- Scale-up services for early detection and treatment of child wasting, severe anemia and malnutrition and stunting
- Maintain provision of nutritious and safe school meals for vulnerable children especially where daily meals in anganwadi centres have been discontinued
- Support research activities taken up by Sukaraya to understand and estimate the impact of COVID-19 on the food and nutrition of different target groups
- Help build a corpus to support communities with food grains, dry rations and other non-perishable food items that can be donated via coupons
Meera Satpathy is the Founder and Chairperson of Sukarya