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Nutrition In The News: Gender Matters

BW Sustainability’s Neeta Misra Speaks with Sonali Khan of Sesame Workshop India on their work in India, nutrition, missing children and why gender matters

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Tell us about the work that Sesame Workshop does in India? 

Sesame Workshop in India is leading the movement to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder. We combine the power of media and targeted distribution providing engaging playful and edutainment content to children in classrooms, homes, digital platforms, TV and communities. We work in low resourced classrooms and communities to bring children and their caregivers’ language and strategies that have proven impact on their literacy, numeracy, nutrition, physical wellbeing and social emotional skills. Since 2007, we have reached over 5 million children across India in partnership with the government, community-based organizations and the corporate sector. Additionally, through our television show, On an average each episode of GGSS garnered reach of 53,000 kids. 

Sesame Workshop in India is uniquely positioned in India as Dual entity, not for profit & for profit social enterprises. The for-profit entity holding the IP to the Sesame Workshop content has access to global education content of Sesame Workshop NY as its holding company and is present on national television through its popular children’s edutainment show Galli Galli Sim Sim. This makes Sesame Workshop in India resource rich with global experiences of working around 150 countries on issues relating to gender & equity.  

Who are the 'missing children' in the nutrition interventions in India? 

India is home to over 216 million children aged 0-8 years, accounting for over 20% of the world population in this age group. With one fifth of the future workforce coming from the country, it is imperative to ensure that children receive the right nutrition and support to realize their full potential. Unfortunately, the latest National Family Health Survey states that over 38% of children under 5 in India are stunted, over 35% underweight and 21% wasting. The situation is worse in rural locations, which accounts for over 66% of the national population, where 41% of children under 5 are stunted, 38% are underweight. The data also varies from state to state with more than 40 % children reportedly stunted, includes Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Gujarat and Meghalaya. Bihar tops the list with 49.4 % of children in age group of 0-59 months stunted. Uttar Pradesh (28.4%) and Meghalaya (29.4%) topped the list of states with high presence of severely stunted children.

There is clearly a need to support parents in providing children with the right kind of nutrition with an increased need for this support amongst the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. A recent study conducted by the United Nations Children´s Fund (UNICEF), covering 11 states, showed that every second Adivasi child is stunted, 68% of Adivasi mothers are less than 20 years old, 48% are undernourished and 76% are anemic. 

The girl child is also suffering! A 2014 UNICEF report stating that the risk of severe stunting is nearly twice as high among girls aged 6-23 months compared to boys (UNICEF 2014). This may be due to food distribution practices within households and gender discrimination, resulting in woman receiving less food or men being served the best portions. 

Studies have also shown that that factors related to gender, poverty and health services account for much of the difference between high and low stunting districts and changes in anemia over time – both for women and for children.

How would you describe the relationship between nutrition and gender?

Under-nutrition manifests itself in the form of poor growth and development amongst children. It is well documented that the girl child is more likely to be undernourished and become an anemic adolescent. They are also deprived of adequate health care, nutritional support and educational opportunities and are often denied their right to not be married early, often resulting in early child bearing and inadequate inter pregnancy recoupment. NFHS 4 findings reveal that around 26.8 per cent of currently married women in the age-group 20-24 years were married before attaining the age of 18 years. This results in a vicious cycle of undernutrition and morbidity that invariably affects human capital through irreversible and intergenerational effects on cognitive and physical development. 

If we think about Nutrition 2030 what in your view is one of the key drivers to getting there? 

There is existing evidence to indicate that gender inequality can be a cause as well as an effect of hunger and malnutrition. A cross country analysis study from developing countries conducted in the year 2000 showed that women’s status and improvements in women’s education are associated with positive impacts on nutritional status. The study estimates that improvements in women’s status account for 11.61% of global reductions in the proportion of children who are underweight, and improvements in women’s education secondary enrolments account for 43.01% of global reductions in the proportion of children who are underweight. Taken together, the two indicators accounted for over half of the reductions in child underweight.

Given the above, it would be ideal to encourage and embed the concept of equality amongst children at an early age since by the time any gender equity interventions start the stereotypes are already internalized by the children making it harder to reach the equity goal. By reaching children at a much earlier age, providing messaging that is age appropriate, engaging and involving caregivers modelling positive behaviors, we can influence the community to be equitable to all children enabling boys and girls to grow together and reach their full potential.

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