Child malnutrition hasn’t really improved in Sri Lanka (recently), according to the IPS
1 out of 5 Sri Lankan children are underweight. In the estate sector (tea plantations) it’s 1 in 3. I find this shocking, but that’s what the Institute for Policy Studies has found in 2006 data. Despite Sri Lanka’s decent healthcare and education (by Asian/African standards), persistent inequality means that kids and mothers are still going hungry.
Child malnutrition by income
The differences are clearly demarcated by class. Almost 30% of the poorest babies are born underweight compared to about 7% of the wealthiest. When I’ve worked in offices, I’ve noticed that cleaning staff were often much shorter. This is an elevator observation, but I’ve seen elsewhere as well. Thing is that bad nutrition stunts physical growth, impairs the brain, makes it harder to get an education and decent job, which reinforces the cycle.
State Of The Estates
Child malnutrition in the estates
The issue is the worst in the estate sector, or tea plantations. The estates, as lovely as they sound, were originally run by slave/indentured labor imported from India by the British. They were treated like shit, many deported by the Sri Lankan government, and their lot hasn’t much improved. Feudal leaders like current MP Thondaman have sat in every government since creation, but the current avatar is more known for partying and spending around Colombo than much else. The Economist cites that there are 1.6 million Indian Tamils (mostly in the estates) and MP Prabha Ganesan has repeated this figure, controversially. That would mean more Indian Tamils than Jaffna, Colombo, Eastern Tamils, which I don’t think is true, but anyways.
The estate sector still has the lowest standards of living in the country. In terms of the Millenium Development Goals, remove the estates and Sri Lanka suddenly passes everything. Look at just the estates and we look sub-Saharan.
In the estate sector, about 1 in 3 under-five year old children are underweight, and 40% of babies have low birth weight (see Figure 4). A household’s socio-economic status is significantly lower in the estate sector than in the urban and rural sectors. In the estate sector, almost 63% of households fall into the poorest category while in the urban and rural sectors this is 8% and 19%, respectively. In the estate sector, low levels of education, especially among females, are a major cause of poor nutritional status, where nearly half of all women of reproductive age are educated below primary level.(IPS)
I also found this shocking:
1 in 6 reproductive age (15-49 year olds) women are malnourished in Sri Lanka. Other than this direct impact, mother’s education has an indirect impact on childhood malnutrition.
Sri Lankan women seem to veer between too skinny and too fat with only a brief window of, well, attractiveness. It’s still surprising to hear that about 17% of adult women are malnourished.
I’d venture that this is not a problem of food supply or even income per se, but a confluence of socio-economic factors, including education. The estates are a particularly bad loop – the work has never paid well and many young people simply aren’t doing it. Young women go into Colombo to work as maids or nannies and return to men and an economy that can’t really support them or their kids. Or as the IPS puts it “To break the vicious cycle of malnutrition in the country, Sri Lanka needs to go beyond health and look closer at the deep-rooted socio-economic factors which are transmitted from generation to generation in lower socio-economic groups.”
In India, 40% of children are malnourished (India’s Food Crisis – Infographic). Sri Lanka’s 20% is half that, but still 20% too many. And much more than I’d thought. I recommend reading the IPS blog post in full. While more Sri Lankan kids than I thought are going hungry, it’s at least food for thought.