Malnutrition continues to be a major public health issue globally and more specifically in Eastern Asia. A study conducted by UNICEF in 2021 established that the triple burden of “malnutrition – undernutrition in the form of stunting and wasting, hidden hunger (due to vitamin and mineral deficiencies) and overweight – threatens the survival, growth, and development of children, young people, economies and nations in Southern Asia.”
According to the World Bank, India is one of the highest-ranking countries in the world with children suffering from malnutrition. It is also the most populous nation in the world with a sixth of the global population.
Nearly 18% of all children under 5 years globally live in India (121 out of 679 million), as do half of all children under 5 years affected by wasting (around 25.5 million out of 50.5 million).
Bihar is a state in India with the highest levels of undernutrition aged 6- 18 months old. It is also the “third largest state by population, the 12th largest by area, and the 14th largest by GDP in 2021.”
Prevalent Health Conditions:
India continues to face challenges in the healthcare sector despite several efforts by the government to address the issue. There is a very high rate of infant as well as maternal deaths caused mainly by poor nutrition, inaccessible medical facilities, high cost of living, and poor sanitation among other socio-economic factors.
“India has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with an estimated 44,000 maternal deaths reported every year. Infant mortality rates are also high, with an estimated 28 deaths per 1,000 live births.”
The world today is dominated by people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, a factor that may limit or affect the way they receive services. Several studies have established that ethnicity has a strong correlation between a healthy population and an unhealthy one.
Health disparities especially amongst ethnic minorities and women from marginalized communities have persisted in India despite the presence of regulatory measures. “Ethnicity may well be the key route through which structure influences ethnic inequalities in health.
In fact, ethnicity “can affect health directly, through the negative physical and psychological consequences of interpersonal [ethnic] victimization and [ethnic] discrimination.
Or indirectly, in the way that institutional [ethnicity] leads to the identification of [ethnic] minority groups, their reification as biologically and culturally different, and the consequent exclusion and social and economic disadvantage that ethnic minority people experience.”
Education level is low in India. Available statistics show that only 46% of women in India can read and write and almost “50 percent of adolescents do not complete secondary education while approximately 20 million children do not have access to preschool education.”
Multiple studies on Child and Maternal malnutrition have established that there is a “lack of national data on the proportion of children with Severe Acute Malnutrition who are identified and treated and few data on mortality following acute malnutrition in the community.”
“Malnutrition among under-five children is a major public health problem in India. This is reflected by the fact that the prevalence of under-weight children in India is among the highest in the world.”
Available statistics show that about 2.3 million deaths that occur among 6-60 months aged children in developing countries are linked to malnutrition “which is about 41% of the total deaths in this age group.”
According to statistics, “Hunger, in the form of micronutrient deficiencies, continues to affect large numbers of children in the region with an estimated 46 percent of children in Southeast Asia suffering from at least one micronutrient deficiency with the youngest children carrying the highest burden.”
Undernourished children often experience developmental challenges including a weakened immune system. They also exhibit lower productivity and poor livelihoods later in life causing deficits in the human capital.
While India remains one the fastest-growing economies in the world, it also happens to be one of the most unequal nations in the world. In modern India, the rich have continued to grab a huge part of the wealth that is usually obtained “through crony capitalism and inheritance.
They are getting richer at a much faster pace while the poor are still struggling to earn a minimum wage and access to quality education and healthcare services.”
In such a system that is founded on lines of caste, religion, and gender, women and children are the victims who in most cases end up malnourished and wasted throughout their lifetime.
Policies addressing Malnutrition:
In order to curb the rising cases of malnutrition, India has rolled out several national and local programs. The approach has been more preventative with initiatives that help pregnant women to effectively manage the condition.
The Food Security Act of 2013 was for instance crafted with the goal of improving the country’s nutritional status. India also instituted The National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development on February 28th, 1966 in order to encourage people to volunteer in social development programs.
This program is run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Despite these initiatives, the country still lags behind on Sustainable Development and Millennium Goals.
Several programs such as the National Health Mission that was created in order to “provide accessible, affordable and quality healthcare services to pregnant women and children under five years of age” have also been in place but with very little positive outcome.
Impact of Healthcare on Social Change;
Healthcare as a discipline brings about social change through empowerment programs that help liberate society and transform lives. Healthcare professionals are problem solvers who create empowering environments for their patients and are social change agents when institutions are the cause of problems.
For example, when institutions create barriers to accessing affordable health care, healthcare [professionals] become agents of change (Fleming et al., 2011).”
Healthcare workers are also cultural ambassadors because they meet and work with people from different geographical regions who perceive the notion of healthcare and public health service delivery differently.
Impact of Healthcare on Human Rights
Healthcare professionals play an important role in promoting human rights and social justice. “Healthcare is a human rights and social justice issue.
According to article 25, of the United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights— “individuals have the right to: a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing of self and of family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond [their] control. (United Nations, 1948).”
Healthcare providers can therefore assume the role of human rights activists in order to ensure that community members are receiving services as per the UN guidelines.
This can be achieved through empowerment programs that make it possible for vulnerable community members to be able to champion for their own rights.
Generally, “social workers play an instrumental role in assessing the mental and emotional health of this population, involving them in the decision-making process in order to promote their health and independence, developing or strengthening existing social networks, and advocating for policies that promote independence and emotional well-being.
Empowered communities have a better chance of addressing “endemic issues of mental health, substance abuse, high rates of chronic conditions, and family violence (Whiteside et al., 2009)”.
“The role of social workers as policy advocates and community organizers is very important for creating social change in these communities. They can collaborate with the UN and Human Rights Commissions to enact new policies that specifically protect rights of women and childless widows and enforce existing ones.”