Why are boys more malnourished than girls in India?

Going by a recent study on malnutrition in children in 10 Indian cities, parental bias for boys could be pushing them closer to junk food

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Monday 19 February 2018
A report released by Naandi Foundation said that boys are more malnourished than girls. Credit: Vikas Choudhary/CSE

In India, it is generally believed girls are disempowered, that also affects their health. And, there are statistics to show their plight. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2016 shows around 55 per cent women are anaemic while just about half of them, 23 per cent, male fall in this category. There are many similar examples that highlight a large number of girls are malnourished only because of the social bias that favours the male child.

A research paper published in the Oxford Economic in 2011 found that breastfeeding duration was the lowest for daughters and those without older brothers because their parents were trying for a son. In 2014, a study published in PLoS One also found that on an average, Indian girls experience about one and a half month shorter breastfeeding duration than boys. According to the Economic Survey recently tabled in the Parliament, around 21 million girls in the country are unwanted, highlighting that their parents had hoped for a son.

However, a report released in the first week of February had a surprising finding: that boys are more malnourished than the girls.

The ‘Urban HUNGaMA Report’ by non-profit Naandi Foundation was based on a survey conducted in 10 big cities of the country--Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Surat, Pune, Jaipur--between April and July 2014 with a sample of nearly 12,000 households. On assessing the different effects of malnutrition in children, including stunting, wasting, underweight and obesity, it found that girls were better than boys.

Bias in the parents’ approach towards the girl child was evident in a HUNGaMA report published in 2011. It had also highlighted a sorry situation in 100 poor districts of the country, that had prompted the then prime minister Manmohan Singh to admit that malnutrition was a “national shame”. The report had concluded that girls’ nutrition advantage over boys fades away with time. It said that the nutrition advantage girls have over boys in the first months of life seems to be reversed over time as they grow older, potentially indicating neglect in early childhood.

This means that bias is present, then why are girls more nourished and less obese in urban India? According to the latest survey, “Boys were found to be slightly more malnourished than girls in every measure of malnutrition.”

The survey found that 15.2 per cent of all boys measured were wasted as compared to 12.4 per cent of all the girls. Overall, 22.7 per cent of boys were stunted as compared to 21.8 per cent of girls, while the prevalence of underweight was 21.9 per cent in boys and 20.7 per cent in girls.

The figures indicate that boys have less access to nutritious food and fall sick more frequently as compared to the girls. The same research highlights another interesting fact: that boys were more obese as compared to girls, which indicates availability of unhealthy junk food for boys more than girls.

Around 2.5 per cent of boys and 2.3 per cent of girls were overweight, according to the report which does not give reasons for these figures. While there is minimal difference in the numbers for girls and boys, as one of the researchers associated with the report points out, the findings definitely push us to think whether this condition is due to unwarranted parental bias with lack of holistic understanding, and whether the same bias against the girl child is pushing boys closer to junk food.

Is this the reason for boys being unhealthier than girls in urban India?

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