NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - One third of families in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are regularly going to bed hungry due to soaring food prices in a region which accounts for half the world's underweight children, the head of Save the Children says.
The charity's CEO Jasmine Whitbread told AlertNet it was particularly shocking that almost half of children in India, Asia's third largest economy, are stunted.
She was speaking in Delhi after the launch of a survey on child malnutrition by Save the Children conducted in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria and Peru.
"The survey showed that because of rising food prices, families report being able to purchase less food for their children and going without food for an entire day," Whitbread added.
"To me as a mother, that is shocking, to think of not being able to feed my child at all for a day on end. It just isn't right frankly, in this day and age, for children to be going to bed hungry night after night. It doesn't have to be that way."
All five countries surveyed have seen significant economic growth, but the accompanying report, A Life Free from Hunger, shows that the benefits are not being shared by all. Child malnutrition is an underlying cause of death for 2.6 million children annually - one-third of all child deaths - with most dying from preventable illnesses like diarrhoea due to weak immune systems.
Those lucky enough to survive, grow up without enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. This means children's brains and bodies do not develop properly and they become stunted - unable to fulfil their physical, academic or economic potential.
Whitbread said it was important to promote exclusive breast-feeding and good hygiene and sanitation practices, as well as to focus on the critical 1000-day period from conception to a child's second birthday, ensuring that both expectant mothers and infants get the right nutrients. "If a child is chronically malnourished during that time, then that can have long lasting effects. So it can affect IQ, their strength, their earning power. So absolutely, that is the time to intervene. It is the easiest and cheapest (time) to intervene."
South Asia, which also includes Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal, is locked into a vicious cycle of stunting that passes from generation to generation, the report says. A quarter of children in this region are born with low birth weights of less than 2.5 kg - which is a powerful predictor of stunting - compared to 12 percent in sub-saharan Africa.
Whitbread said although Bangladesh and Afghanistan had started at a lower base, they have both made faster progress than India on reducing the number of children dying from causes related to poor nutrition.
"What is happening in India, is that you've actually got a shocking percentage of children who are affected by not having enough food," she said. "India is the second largest world producer of wheat and rice and in that same country you have children who are simply not getting enough food."
Last month, a survey said 42 percent of Indian children under five were underweight, despite the country averaging 8 to 9 percent growth over the last five years.
Whitbread said gender discriminatory customs such as child marriage were a strong contributory factor towards high rates of child malnutrition.
"Often you've girls becoming mothers while they are still girls, so you've effectively got children being parented by children - that is not a cycle for progress and development," she said. "The whole issue of gender and empowerment of women and how girls are treated is a core part of how we tackle child malnutrition."
(AlertNet is the world's humanitarian news site run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. For more AlertNet stories, visit www.trust.org/alertnet <www.trust.org/alertnet>)