A century and a half ago, Charles Dickens wrote about stunting among children growing up in poverty in Victorian London. Dickens chronicled the phenomenon in his rich commentary of Victorian life. As the Industrial Revolution and social reforms swept Britain and standards of living improved, more people had access to healthy, nutritious food - and stunting was consigned to the pages of historical novels.
As we gather in London this weekend for the Nutrition for Growth Summit, we should remind ourselves that while stunting was long ago banished from the streets of this city, it is still very much a reality in the developing world. One-quarter of all children living on the planet today are growing up stunted. Research suggests that without further action, it is quite possible that more than 400 million children could be affected in the next 15 years. These are children who are short for their age, either because their mothers were under-nourished, or because they failed to get the food they needed in the critical early years of life. Many will suffer long term consequences in their physical and intellectual development.
These children represent our collective failure to address under-nutrition, a glaring scandal of the 21st Century.
Although we have made considerable progress in recent years, most notably with the new focus on the 1,000 days window from the start of a woman's pregnancy to her baby's second birthday, there is room for more progress. The right kind of nutritious food for mothers and children during these first 1,000 days builds a firm foundation for each child to realise his or her full potential.
As we meet this weekend to review our progress in improving nutrition, we need to ask ourselves whether there is more we can do during this critical 1,000 days period - especially when it comes to mothers. Mothers are a critical piece of the 1,000 days agenda, and represent the first opportunity to ensure that children grow up healthy and strong. Babies of malnourished mothers are more likely to die before the age of two, suffer from low birth weight and stunting, and struggle in later years with poor performance in school, lower income and a whole host of other health problems.
Women who survive malnutrition as children also face dangerous challenges when they become pregnant. Low body mass index and short maternal stature are important risk factors for birth complications, low birth weight and newborn mortality.
As we continue to sharpen our focus on the 1,000 days window, we must recognise the critical importance of good nutrition for women of reproductive age, including adolescence. If we ignore the nutritional needs of this age-group, we will leave the job half done. We need to reach women with the right interventions before they become pregnant, when many of them are unlikely to be visiting health clinics or be paying close attention to their diets. This will ensure that women enter pregnancy well-nourished, and give the next generation its first chance at living healthy, productive lives.
The push to address stunting on a global level will be at the heart of our discussions this weekend and we will strive to develop new ideas that can help us reach this goal as rapidly as possible. To have any chance of banishing the scourge of stunting from the world, we need to go beyond existing approaches. This will require a renewed focus on nutrition for adolescent girls and women of reproductive age so that they are well nourished at the very moment that they are trying to become pregnant, or have just conceived. The 1,000 days agenda needs to be reinforced by action that provides nutrition for adolescent girls and women of reproductive age, in order to set a firm course for the future development of a child.
The London Nutrition for Growth Summit provides a golden opportunity to forge a partnership to provide comprehensive nutritional cover for adolescent girls and all women of reproductive age. If we can do this in London, then we have a genuine opportunity to consign stunting to the pages of history, once and for all.
Follow Ertharin Cousin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WFPErtharin