Maternal nutrition sorely lacking in South Asia, with anaemia rates stubbornly high

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

Maternal nutrition — and by extension, child nutrition — in South Asia are in dire straits. ©Getty Images
Maternal nutrition — and by extension, child nutrition — in South Asia are in dire straits. ©Getty Images
Anaemia affects 32% of pregnant women in Sri Lanka, which in turn impedes their children's development.

This is part of a wider problem in South Asia, where the pre- and post-natal care of women is progressing at snail's pace. The region is home to over a third of the world's anaemic women, with none of its countries close to meeting the global aim of reducing anaemia in 50% of women by 2025.

Prenatal anaemia results in children being born smaller than normal, predisposing them to wasting and stunting early in life. This then affects their academic performance, leading them to earn lower wages as adults, and making them more susceptible to diabetes and chronic heart diseases in the later stages of adulthood.

It's not just pregnant women and their offspring who suffer in Sri Lanka — many female adolescents, and women in general, have problems accessing the necessary healthcare and nutrition. More than 45% of women in the country are overweight or obese, a statistic that attests to the double burden of malnutrition among its adult population.

Absent policy amid abject poverty

Last week in Kathmandu, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and UNICEF held a three-day regional conference on actions to hasten the advancement of women's nutrition in South Asia.

UN partners, government representatives, and civil society organisations from all South Asian countries, as well as global and regional experts, were in attendance. The aim was to produce and agree upon a set of key recommendations to vastly improve maternal nutrition in South Asia.

Regional director for UNICEF in South Asia Jean Gough said, "Gaps in national policies, programmes and care services during pregnancy, combined with poverty and customary practices, mean that women fail to receive the nutritional care they need for a healthy pregnancy."

Indeed, insufficient investment in maternal healthcare, nutrition services being deprioritised, and the minimal distribution of care for pregnant women are preventing essential nutritional services and supplements from reaching enough women.

To make matters worse, few people — from politicians to the general public — truly understand the consequences of poor maternal nutrition.

SAARC sec-gen Amjad Hussain Sial, said, "Women's nutrition needs special attention. Governments need to look at how we can provide healthy diet and lifestyle options. We must strive towards a collective effort that involves health providers, community-based workers, families, schools, and mothers themselves."

A recent UNICEF report highlighted the severity of vitamin A deficiency among children in South Asia, where food fortification programmes to reduce micronutrient deficiencies in both women and children have been introduced in countries like India​, Bangladesh​ and Pakistan​.

The report emphasised the need for policy makers, international organisations, and industry to work together to drive such programmes, in order to ensure their sustainability and success.

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