Amplify the subject of adolescent girl nutrition

Tackling the complex issue of nutrition among adolescent girls is not just a health concern but also an investment in India’s future

Updated - June 12, 2023 11:24 am IST

Published - June 12, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘What makes the situation more complex is the fact that a range of factors affects the nutrition uptake in adolescent girls’

‘What makes the situation more complex is the fact that a range of factors affects the nutrition uptake in adolescent girls’ | Photo Credit: KUMAR S.S.

To unlock the full potential of India’s future, we have to prioritise the health and nutrition of its adolescent girls. Adolescence is a pivotal period of cognitive development and, therefore, improving access to nutrition during this “second window of opportunity of growth” compensates for any nutrient deficiencies acquired during early developmental stages in the girl child. Furthermore, adolescent health is a significant indicator of women’s labour force participation in India in the long term, as better nutrition improves every young girl’s prospect to participate in productive activities. Thus, the country beholds a colossal opportunity to add to its nation’s demographic dividend by investing in nutrition interventions in adolescent girls.

Ever-growing nutritional concern

Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to undernutrition and anaemia due to the onset of menstruation. The findings of the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) confirm these concerns, as a staggering 59.1% of adolescent girls were found to be anaemic. With the NFHS-4 numbers also having reported over 41.9% of school-going girls as underweight, the numbers showcase a worrying trend. What makes the situation more complex is the fact that a range of factors, from environmental conditions to cultural norms that lack a gender-neutral environment within a household, affects the nutrition uptake in adolescent girls.

While progress has been made in improving crucial health indicators in the form of various government initiatives that have successfully achieved optimum coverage, it is however essential to acknowledge that current health interventions do not specifically focus on the nutritional statuses of adolescent girls.

We are, as a nation, far from realising the long-term consequences of overlooking the nutritional needs of young girls. Poorly balanced and insufficient diets can lead to cognitive impairments that affect one’s academic performance. This can result in lower educational attainment, which can limit opportunities for employment and economic self-sufficiency later in life. Undernourished adolescent girls are also at a higher risk of chronic diseases and pregnancy complications, which can lead to a higher health-care burden on both families and communities, potentially leading to financial instability and increased poverty. If our girls are less healthy and less educated, they are less likely to participate fully in society, whether through work, politics, or community involvement.

Redefine the interventions

Therefore, it is imperative that we redefine interventions such that we not only centre it around good nutrition but also adopt a life-cycle approach, ensuring that no girl gets left behind. This investment can also help break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, as well-nourished girls are more likely to have healthy babies and provide better care for their families. Thus, investing in girls’ nutrition is not only the moral obligation of the state but also an economic one, with potential returns in the form of greater and more sustainable economic growth of the nation.

Additionally, a few strategic modifications to existing interventions can significantly expand the scope of its outcomes. The convergence of various government initiatives such as the Scheme for Adolescent Girls (SAG) within the umbrella of the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition programme (POSHAN) 2.0 is a step in the right direction, provided it is implemented effectively. Targeted adolescent-oriented schemes such as the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) could include even stronger awareness and nutrition education programmes that would help sustain beneficiary compliance. Targeted and regionally contextualised Social and Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) efforts around adolescent girls’ nutrition are sure to generate greater demand and the adoption of good practices. For improved outcomes, it is very imperative for effective convergence and collaborations among all the relevant departments, in a way that fosters a collective endeavour. Routine training of health workers for effective implementation and monitoring of various schemes, and to adapt with an evolving landscape, is also a crucial step in this process.

Use evidence and data

A holistic narrative on adolescent girls’ nutrition, explaining its linkages with overall mental and physical well-being, individual productivity and overall economic growth of the country is needed. This must be packed with evidence/data that effectively appeals to all, to those outside the technical community, and must be framed to make it actionable. This also immediately brings about the need for disaggregated data that allows for effective interpretation.

As an elected representative, it is my duty to amplify this vital discourse on nutrition, to work towards protecting and improving the nutritional status of adolescent girls in our country. It is crucial to acknowledge that tackling the complex issue of nutrition among adolescent girls is not just a health concern, but is an investment in the future of the nation. We have an enormous responsibility, as well as a tremendous opportunity, to ensure the welfare and the upliftment of the nation by prioritising the nutritional needs of India’s girls. The strength of a nation is measured by its ability to nurture its future generations; hence, let us work collectively to sow the seeds of a healthier, stronger India, where every girl can reach her full potential.

Gaurav Gogoi is Member of Parliament (Congress), Kaliabor, Assam

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