In October, newly appointed UNICEF Regional Goodwill Ambassador Aamir Khan visited the Kapilbastu District in Western Nepal to see how the country is fighting malnutrition and child stunting on the ground.
8:00 am: We arrived in Kathmandu last night and the first item on the agenda is a field trip to a district called Kapilbastu, about 260 kilometres west of Kathmandu.
Child nutrition is important to me because child stunting is one of the greatest development challenges to South Asia. Even though I have been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in India since November 2011, I am now joining hands with UNICEF at the regional level to raise awareness of children’s nutrition issues across the eight countries in South Asia. This is a huge responsibility and one I am honoured to accept. In this region, about 38 per cent of children under 5 are stunted due to chronic undernutrition. In India, 48 percent of under 5 children are stunted and 41 percent are stunted in Nepal.
The effects of stunting are terrible and can include poorer cognitive development, less learning abilities and general underperformance in life, including lesser earning power. This means that investments made in elementary education in South Asia will not have the expected return because of the huge numbers of stunted children in the region.
Here in Nepal, I’m excited to see with my own eyes how the country is fighting these problems by improving nutrition and changing mindsets and behaviours. I am joined by Karin Hulshof, Regional Director of UNICEF South Asia and Tomoo Hozumi, Representative of UNICEF Nepal.
10:00 am: It’s hotter and flatter than I thought it would be here! We arrive safely and are welcomed by the local community before a representative from the government gives us a briefing of the nutrition situation in the district, one of 75 in Nepal. I found out that 40 percent of the under-5 children in Kapilbastu suffer from stunting and almost 50 percent suffer from anaemia.
The good news is, in Nepal, UNICEF along with key partners is addressing key and immediate underlying factors through a convergence approach. They are fighting the issues with both nutrition specific interventions, such as Vitamin-A supplementation, deworming, growth monitoring and iron folic acid supplementation and nutrition sensitive interventions such as immunization, maternal newborn health programmes and adolescent friendly service centres.
At the nearby Outpatient Therapeutic Programme Centre (OTP), I saw how children with malnutrition were screened and measured for height and weight and how health workers gave advice to mothers to improve the health and nutrition of their babies.
It strikes me at this point that Nepal is actually doing really well to fight the battle against stunting and undernutrition – better than India in fact, where more than 61 million children suffer from stunting. I see that there is a mutual and collective responsibility, amongst different government ministries, UN agencies, community groups and non-governmental organizations.
11:00 am: A key success story in Nepal has been the Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHV). With more than 55,000 across the country, they are selected by their communities and play a vital role in the country’s nutrition strategy. The go door to door to counsel mothers and give advice about infant and young child feeding, as well as administer micronutrient powder and other nutritional supplements.
I was lucky to meet one FCHV named Champadevi Kevat who spoke on behalf of her fellow female volunteers. She shared the challenges of the job, such as travelling between villages despite heat and bad weather.
12:00 pm: We’re now resting for lunch near Lumbini, a delicious Nepali buffet. After this we will be visiting the Mayadevi Temple, the birthplace of Buddha.
1:30 pm: We are now at the Temple and the solemnness of the site is almost overwhelming. We are guided by a local archaeology expert, who gives me a tour of the site and teaches me about the history behind the birth of Buddha. At a nearby site, local monks bless me and my work for children in the region. I feel extremely privileged to have been able to visit here today.
2:30 pm – depart for Kathmandu: It has been an extremely eye opening day on the ground. While the scale of the stunting problem in South Asia is starting to become clear to me, positive examples such as Nepal give me a hope for the region. Together, we can fight stunting in South Asia and end this tragedy forever.