Can Pakistan Achieve ZERO Stunting Status by 2030?

04:38 PM | 24 Oct, 2020
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Security preference and political instability in Pakistan never allowed any government in the country to keep social issues at their priority actions. So, governments plan and deliver politically motivated short-term tangible developmental projects to win the political support of the public such as Metro Bus Service in Lahore and Peshawar.

Former Chief Minister Punjab, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, inaugurated Metro Bus Service in Lahore just a few days before General Elections in 2008 and became a single largest party in Punjab despite the fact that Pakistan Peoples Party formed government at the federal level with their political allies. In this political culture, it was heartening for me to hear about the issue of malnutrition and child stunting in Pakistan from the current Prime Minister, Imran Khan. 

Malnutrition is one of the greatest health challenges that affects about 2 billion people globally. Pakistan is ranked 3rd in the world where nearly half of the children under-five years of age suffer from either stunting or wasting, or both. According to a policy brief by the WHO (World Health Organization), stunting leads to reduced child development. If it occurs before the age of two years, it predicts poorer intelligence and school performance later in childhood and adolescence.

Pakistan is among the world’s top 10 producers of wheat, rice, sugarcane, oranges, mango, dates, and onion; and is ranked 4th in the production of milk and 11th in pulses. Despite earning high ranks in production of edible crops worldwide, Pakistan’s National Nutrition Survey Report of 2018 exposes the poorer nutritional status of its population. The survey report reveals the fact that 40.2% of children under five years of age are stunted, while 17.7% suffer from wasting. Malnutrition has a double burden as 28.9% of children underweight and 9.5% overweight. 

Despite the marginal improvement from 2011 onwards, when the prevalence of stunting was 43.7%, it continues to remain at a critical level. Experts believe that this change can be attributed to population increase, and there has actually been very little improvement.

Pakistan’s National Nutrition Survey Report reveals the fact that Pakistan is facing the triple-burden of malnutrition as high rates of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and increasing prevalence of obesity. Women, adolescents, and children are affected the most. Women aged 15-49 years of age are also facing the triple burden of malnutrition; 14% are undernourished, 28% are overweight, and 38% are obese. Almost 42% of women and 57% of adolescent girls are anaemic.

A renowned nutritionist, Dr Naveed Hyder, says that Pakistan has been reported to have one of the highest levels of commonness of child malnutrition and stunting compared to other developing counties of the world. It is not easy to combat malnutrition and stunting with current lifestyle practices, social behaviours, and ignorant government policies. The government will have to adopt a multi-sectoral approach at all levels. The provision of uncompromised and unconditional government patronage to the private sector is also crucial to ensure their contribution for ending hunger and malnutrition.    

Sabir Farhat, a leading human rights activist, expressed his expert opinion about the community behaviours and main causes of malnutrition and stunting in the country. He said that key contributing factors in childhood malnutrition and stunting are low birth weight, premature births, unhealthy dietary and lifestyle patterns, inadequate breastfeeding or exclusive breastfeeding, and inappropriate complementary feeding. 

He further added that lack of proper knowledge of nutrition, low maternal education, maternal health and nutritional status, environmental and household conditions, no birth spacing practices, food insecurity, and poor sanitation, play a vital role in affecting the growth of children at early ages. He urged that a large number of non-governmental organizations are working in their limited capacity on this issue to bring behavioural change in society without the significant support of the government, but still a long way to go ahead. The government will have to take this issue more seriously. 

Pakistan has made an international commitment by signing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end hunger and ensure access for all, especially for the poor and vulnerable, to the nutritious and sufficient food by 2030. Although current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has highlighted this issue in his speeches but yet no significant step is taken by his government to address this issue. Only 10 years left behind to reach globally committed targets of ZERO stunting. This is a very ambitious goal which requires an unwavering commitment by the federal and provincial governments, strong political will, and well-knitted collaborated efforts of all public and private stakeholders.

The author is a social activist and working for the fundamental human rights of Pakistanis. He can be reached at aamiryousaf11@gmail.com