Is India’s culture the reason for its stunted kids?


Photo: Naypong | Dreamstime.com

Photo: Naypong | Dreamstime.com

Almost 40% of Indian children were stunted (growing in height at a much slower rate than a normal child) in 2005. Ten years later, Indian children are among the shortest globally and have the fifth highest likelihood in the world of being stunted. While India has made much progress in other development indicators, child stunting has remained unaffected. A group of researches thinks they have a plausible explanation for why that is.

India has been lagging when it comes to addressing the issue of stunted children. The height of a child is linked to whether her or his nutritional needs are being met, and is also an indicator for the child’s mental development and overall health going into adulthood. Adults who were stunted as children have worse cognitive skills, live less healthy lives and get less well-paying jobs. Previous explanations for India’s persisting stunting problem have focused on cultural factors such as open defecation.

However, a discussion paper published by the US based National Bureau of Economic Research links the phenomenon of stunting to Indian parents’ preference towards sons. Specifically, the authors think that parents disproportionately concentrate resources on the eldest male child’s health and nutritional needs to the detriment of the other children.

To examine this theory, researchers compared children in India with those from Sub-Saharan Africa, which is another region with a high prevalence of stunting. They found that Indian female children, no matter what their sibling hierarchy, were shorter than African female children. For Indian girls with an elder girl siblings, the height disparity got worse, implying that nutrition is neglected further by parents for each girl they birth.

However, in stark contrast, the eldest male child in Indian families grew taller than their sub-Saharan African equivalents. This was true even if the eldest male was not the first-born child in the family. Furthermore, younger male siblings of the eldest males again faced height disadvantages that worsened as the number of siblings increased.

The researchers found that the neglect of females begins at birth. Parents may take pains to ensure a healthy fetus during pregnancy, but once the child is born and is a girl, they stop. Though sex-determination tests are prohibited, the increase of illegal means to get it done poses more bad news. Experts predict that female children will face even more inequality, although “it is likely that the discrimination against girls will become more extreme [and take the form of missing girls rather than short girls]. It’s clear that we need to directly tackle the root cause — son preference,” Rohini Pande, one of the study authors, told The Hindu.

Two sub-populations in India show less evidence of this first-male and sibling-order height discrepancy. The first group is Muslims and the second is the population of Kerala. The authors suggest that this is because Hindu culture actually places a higher emphasis on a male child: aging parents often expect to live with the eldest son, property is bequeathed to the eldest son, and only males may conduct post-death rituals such as lighting the funeral pyre and conducting the death-anniversary ceremonies. Islam does not have the same emphasis on male offspring. Kerala has a strong matrilineal culture.

If these results are validated, it would mean a serious problem for India. The latest census showed an increase in the male-to-female child ratio, meaning that the preference for males is entrenched and manifesting itself even more. Only a select few of them will get the nutrition and care they need, while the other children are neglected, and left to face a bleak future. Given the problems that stunting causes, and that fewer healthy females means not enough mates for males, it is hard to see how this won’t hold the country back as well.

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