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Reduce stunting in children by empowering mothers

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Data from UNICEF in 2022 revealed that at least one in five young children worldwide is experiencing stunting. Photo by Charlein Gracia - Unsplash

By: Dr. Romi Bhakti Hartarto

Child malnutrition has become a primary concern for policymakers, particularly in developing countries. Despite rapid progress in addressing global hunger issues, the nutritional status of young children remains threatened in various parts of the world. Data from UNICEF in 2022 revealed that at least one in five young children worldwide is experiencing stunting. As a primary indicator of chronic malnutrition, stunting in children measures nutritional inadequacy and poor health during childhood. Children who experience stunting never reach their full growth potential and tend to have lower cognitive abilities, leading to reduced future earnings. Therefore, stunting not only hinders their potential but also impacts a nation’s resources and economic development.

Dr. Romi Bhakti Hartarto

Stunting is influenced by biobehavioral factors, such as nutritional deficiencies and diseases, but beyond that, socioeconomic factors also play a crucial role. Empowering women, as one of these critical socioeconomic factors, has been shown to affect various metrics, including child nutrition. This is because women are the primary caregivers and can influence a child’s nutrition, both indirectly through their health status and directly through child-rearing practices. Maternal altruism makes mothers more attentive to their children, internalizing their preferences. Additionally, as the primary caregivers, they are more responsible and better understand their children’s needs. Of course, the division of household responsibilities can contribute to a better alignment of needs. Therefore, a child’s nutritional status depends on their mother’s characteristics.

Various studies have explored the connection between a mother’s socioeconomic status and a child’s well-being. Maternal control over economic resources has been shown to improve child health outcomes in Morocco. Similarly, households with women who have more decision-making control in Malawi tend to spend more on healthy food. If men have more control, households may spend their money on masculine items like alcohol and tobacco in Kenya. The more control women have over their financial resources, the greater their ability to purchase items that can enhance their children’s nutritional status. There is also a positive and significant relationship between women’s decision-making authority in households and children’s height and survival rates in Nepal and India, even after considering educational and wealth aspects. Therefore, there is a potentially positive connection between women’s decision-making authority in household matters and children’s health outcomes. Empowered women in household decision-making can make better choices for themselves and their children.

Considering that households consist of individuals who may not necessarily have the same preferences, decisions regarding a child’s health result from negotiation processes between parents that depend on their ability to express their preferences. Regarding children, social norms play a significant role in shaping human behaviour, especially in the Southeast Asian context. These norms allow husbands to take a larger share of their income for personal purposes, while wives are limited to the rest. As a result, women tend to spend their income on household needs, including a child’s health. Based on this matter, the greater bargaining power women have within the household can improve a child’s long-term health status, leading to a reduction in stunting. Studies in Indonesia have shown that increasing women’s bargaining power within households enhances the long-term

nutritional outcomes of children, such as higher HAZ scores and lower chances of stunting. However, this effect is only observed in boys, as preferences for male children persist.

Findings from studies in Indonesia could be relevant in the context of Malaysia, which still has a relatively high stunting rate, 21.8% in 2019 according to the National Morbidity and Health Survey, and socio-economic conditions not significantly different. Policies aimed at empowering women within households may be effective because they can create positive externalities for children. However, family support needs to be involved. Strategies to address malnutrition through women’s empowerment should complement general nutrition policies, as this will strengthen the effectiveness of reducing stunting rates. Moreover, policies focused on empowering women need to consider social norms. This is related to the persistence of rigid patriarchal mindsets in some regions. Finally, gender-based development policies need to pay more attention to the effectiveness of these policies because they can have different implications for men and women due to cultural factors.

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The author is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Universiti Malaya, and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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