Photo: Priyanka Parashar/ Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/ Mint

Why do healthy girl children grow into undernourished women in India?

Recent research shows that adolescent girls are not as well-fed as boys of their age

It is a rare case of statistics confirming a societal stereotype. Recent research shows that adolescent girls are not as well-fed as boys of their age.

Why is it important?

This can probably help us solve the puzzle of why women fare badly on nutritional health indicators in India when an average girl child aged less than 5 years is healthier than her male peers.

The study, Do Boys Eat Better than Girls in India: Longitudinal Evidence from Young Lives, shows two things. One, there is a gender gap in dietary diversity for all age groups except 12-year-olds. Dietary diversity seeks to measure the number of food groups consumed by a child in the past 24 hours. It is a well-accepted proxy for nutritional status of children and adolescents in low and middle income countries.

Two, the gap in favour of boys is the most marked in 15-year-old children.

Graphic: Sarvesh Sharma/Mint
Graphic: Sarvesh Sharma/Mint

What explains these gender gaps in nutritional status?

According to the paper, some of these relate to “the consumption of some ‘unitary’ food items such as milk, fruit and eggs. In a context such as India, where meals are usually shared from the same pot, parents may be able to discriminate between siblings by providing an egg, a piece of fruit or a glass of milk to the preferred child at a given age".

These findings are in contrast with earlier research on the issue. For example, a 2015 paper in the Journal of South Asian Development said that no such discrimination in nutrition exists.

“Our results suggest that a female disadvantage in nutritional status is not present in the most recent survey and may indicate that prior accounts of so-called pervasive gender bias discriminating against girls on intra-household distribution of food and health resources… are either due to differential reporting or if they do exist then they are not consequential enough to matter for anthropometric status," noted the paper.

Such research also seemed to be backed by data on anthropometric indicators, which shows that girls fared better than boys in nutritional outcomes till five years of age. The advantage for girl child is seen to exist across multiple rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data.

However, these statistics could not explain why the average healthier girl child grows up to become an undernourished woman in India. Recently released data for the fourth round of NFHS (2015-16) shows that there is a much higher prevalence of anaemia and below normal body mass index (BMI) among women in comparison to men in India.

Latest evidence showing that gender discrimination in nutrition might be starting not in childhood but in adolescence might help us solve this puzzle. Perhaps, it would also act as a signal to our policy makers to plug what seems to be a significant loophole in female health in India.

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