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Stunting – what’s the big deal?

Why focus on stunting – why does it matter how tall a child is?

Actually, it can matter a lot.

Stunting can reflect chronic nutritional deficiencies. Stunting is responsible for the death of one million children every year. For those who survive, stunting is associated with impaired brain development, poor cognition, decreased learning in childhood, lower productivity and reduced earnings in adulthood. It is a vicious cycle – and it begins while the child is still in the womb.

Interestingly, the global health community has realized the crucial importance of nutrition during the 1,000 day period spanning pregnancy to the second year of a child’s life. After this extremely formative period, it’s very difficult to reverse the effects. And what exactly are the effects?

Today, an estimated 38 per cent of children under five years of age are stunted in South Asia; these levels are similar to Sub-Saharan Africa and over three times higher than those in East Asia and the Pacific and Latin America.

Exactly 25 years ago, the world agreed that children’s rights needed to be protected and it created the Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely and rapidly signed human rights treaty in history.

Article 24 of the Convention says that “states shall take measures to combat disease and malnutrition through the provision of adequate nutritious foods.” If good nutrition is a human right, then child stunting is a violation of this right.

In 1990, the year after the Convention was signed, 61 per cent of children in South Asia were stunted. In 2010, when the last figures were available, this dropped to 38 per cent – a huge drop.

However, this percentage still represents almost 63 million stunted children; one of the highest absolute numbers of stunted children in the world. In fact, the region bears approximately 40 percent of the global burden of child stunting.

These staggering numbers means that if South Asia cannot find a solution to stunting, then the world cannot move forward in the fight against malnutrition.

Importantly, stunting is discriminate and hits the most disadvantaged the hardest. For example, the prevalence of stunting in children born to women without formal education is 2.5 times higher than in children born to women who have completed secondary education. Children born into more disadvantaged castes or ethnicities also have a higher chance of being stunted.

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