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Why Malnutrition Continues to Plague India

February 21, 2012

This post was originally published on the site Gender Across Borders.

Historically, property ownership by women is tied to their level of independence and overall power in a society. In India today, women gaining the right to own the land on which they tirelessly toil alongside their husbands is a part of that history.

A recent report out of the world’s largest democracy shows that the percentage of malnourished children is striking, even though the country has made tremendous progress in many aspects, including a significant growth of its annual gross domestic product (GDP).

With a 42 percent malnutrition rate among children, low birth weight, and a maternal mortality rate of 212 per 100,000, India, a rapidly developing nation, compares with sub-Saharan Africa. While a high level of poverty in a population, insufficient food production, and widespread disease often explain why children go underfed; in India the cause is the lack of women’s economic rights.

All over the world women suffer from inequality to various degrees, but in certain regions like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, those inequalities are jarring, affecting females right down to how much they can, or are allowed to, put in their mouth.

Researchers with UNICEF have wondered whether the South Asian tradition of taking care of one’s husband and mother-in-law first, as opposed to other societies—like sub-Saharan Africa—where the main duty is to foremost care for a husband and his children, could be a contributing factor. Both systems pose a dilemma for the wellbeing of a wife and mother, but the South Asian model may cause more complications for children.

Women’s status in India continues to be lower than men’s, leaving them with little control over household assets. Without rights and/or social acceptance that allow them to manage money or officially own land, they do not possess the means to have a say in how income is spent, and subsequently how much should be allotted for adequate nutrition—for themselves and their children.

The Indian government has instituted various programs that administer fully state-subsidized food and vitamins, but those are unlikely to be the only way to solve the malnutrition crisis. Investing in women and empowering them has proven worthwhile, and ensures that entire sectors of society benefit.

Statistics show that currently women are more likely than men to share their income with others, to “give back” and invest in the wellbeing of their families and communities. In the Indian survey, more than half of the women participating said that they play a significant role in making decisions about their children, but only about 13 percent said that they play an equally important role in financial decisions for household purchases.

Studies from various regions around the world including Central America, Nepal, and Ghana, show that when women are entitled by law to family land, a household spends more on food, children are better fed and more likely to be educated, and the whole family is healthier overall.

Overcoming extreme poverty in developing countries will require women in those societies to be fully engaged and empowered. When women are allowed to own property, make financial decisions, and widely engage in income generation outside the household, their value as capable human beings is visibly increased in their communities.

In the mission to save children from malnutrition we must pay attention to the primary caretaker’s wellbeing, and in most societies today that is still the mother. If the women in charge of raising the next generation are destitute, uneducated, overwhelmed by unintended pregnancies, inadequate healthcare, and lack of proper nutrition, and have no access to proper sanitation and no support from their partner and society, they can only achieve so much through their will and love alone.

Consequently, an investment in the wellbeing of a girl, woman, and mother has the incredible potential to save her and her family from a fate of cyclical poverty with little promise of a better future.

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