THE BLOG
11/09/2015 07:48 BST | Updated 06/09/2016 06:59 BST

How Good Nutrition Can Empower Children in India

Picture a young girl growing up in a poor, rural community in India. Born to an anaemic mother, Puja is underweight from birth and does not receive the early rich breast milk that she needs not only to grow but also to prevent and fight illness.

In the first two years of her life, she is often hungry and rarely gets the nutrients she needs. Poverty, lack of clean water and proper sanitation and nutritional deficiencies mean that she is often sick and her growth is irreversibly stunted. Yet Puja survives and is fortunate enough to attend school, but her undernourished brain and body makes it far more difficult to learn, and she is the equivalent of two to three years behind many of her peers. When she is old enough to begin work, her diminished physical and cognitive development reduces her earning capacity by at least 20 per cent, making it more difficult to feed her own children. This is the tragic cycle of chronic malnutrition.

Malnutrition is one of the great iniquities and social injustices of our time. Globally, every minute of every day, five children die because of malnutrition. Of those children that survive, one in four are stunted, their physical and mental growth permanently damaged by the lack of nutritious food, impacting not only on survival and health, but also education, productivity and inter-generational wellbeing.

The situation in India is especially perilous, with millions of children at risk, either due to physical or cognitive limitations. Over half of girls aged 15-18 report anaemia, and 48% of children under-five are moderately or severely malnourished. The widespread under nutrition in preschool and school age children is responsible for 2.95% of loss of annual GDP for India, according to a World Bank Study. Yet if addressed, the benefits are life-long and far reaching for children and their communities.

Malnutrition is everyone's business but often seems to be nobody's responsibility. That is why leadership is so important. Unicef has taken the lead, and with governments and partners, made the reduction of child malnutrition their responsibility, inspiring others, including myself, to do so as well.

We have been supporting Unicef since 2006, and in recent years have been funding an innovative programme, in partnership with the Indian Government, to investigate and establish the linkages between nutritional status, school readiness and other education outcomes in India. When a child starts school their young brain has to take in a huge amount of information, and it is vitally important that we make sure that every child is in the best position to be able to do so.

Although the links between adequate nutrition and a child's chance of making the most of their education are conceptually clear, currently there is a dearth of information on the actual nutritional status of school age children in India and other developing countries.

We hope that through this study we will be able to gain a clear insight and provide recommendations for large nutrition programmes that are currently implemented in India, such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme and the Midday Meal Scheme. With programmes such as these we will be able to help create a road map for the way ahead at both regional and national levels, and perhaps could even provide a template for other countries to follow.

We hope that this project, with our support, will have an impact for many decades to come. Having two young children of our own, my husband and I feel very strongly that every child has not only the right to an education, but should also have the opportunity to make the most of it. That's why we believe this project is so important.

We know that malnutrition can hold back not just individuals, but whole economies. That's why investment in child nutrition not only provides a foundation for a better world: it can also be a powerhouse for development, driving improved health, productivity, educational achievement and economic performance. Because good nutrition empowers children, families, communities and nations, it is an incredibly effective way to achieve major, sustainable, global progress.

We hope that by supporting Unicef's work on child nutrition, and ensuring that there is the evidence available to back up the clear links between nutrition and educational achievement, we can help ensure that future generations of Indian children get the best start in life and are able to grow up to contribute to the continued success of the country. Giving children like Puja that chance is surely all of our responsibility.