Undernourished and anaemic – the plight of India’s teen girls

April 26, 2012

The U.N.’s latest report on the state of the world’s 1.2 billion adolescents gives food for thought, especially on the plight of India’s girls aged between 10 and 19.

The report explores a range of issues affecting teenagers around the globe, from nutrition and health to sexual behaviour, knowledge on HIV/AIDS, attitudes towards gender violence and access to education.

Data from surveys of adolescent girls in India, and South Asia in general, are once again a reality check – which we shouldn’t need but unfortunately still do.

Soon to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation by 2050, India already has the highest number of adolescents in the world at 243 million, says the report by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Yet nearly half of Indian girls aged 15 to 19 are underweight, and more than a quarter are underweight in 10 other countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Niger, Ethiopia and Cambodia.

“Such undernutrition renders adolescents vulnerable to disease and early death, and has lifelong health consequences,” says the report. “In adolescent mothers, undernutrition is related to slow foetal growth and low birthweight.”

Another startling health indicator is that 56 percent of India’s adolescent girls are anaemic – the sixth highest rate in the world. Mali has the worst, with 68 percent of girls suffering an iron deficiency.

Anaemia increases the maternal risk of haemorrhage and sepsis during childbirth, as well as cognitive and physical problems in young children, and reduces productivity in adults.


Regional statistics aren’t much better.

One in three South Asian girls aged between 15 and 19 are married or in union, compared to 24 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and 18 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Many child brides are cut off from their families, unable to complete their formal education. Their health is endangered from having children early as they are physically unprepared for sex and reproduction.

The report also suggests that women who marry as children are at risk of domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, particularly when their husband is older.

“A large age difference between spouses may affect the power relations within the marriage and make the young wife more vulnerable to violence and abuse,” says the report.

“In addition, women with much older husbands are more likely to become widows, which may create economic instability and negatively affect their social status.”

Marrying older partners can also increase girls’ risk of contracting HIV in countries with HIV epidemics. Yet only 19 percent of adolescent girls have comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS, compared with 35 percent of boys in South Asia, says the report.

Attitudes towards domestic violence among both boys and girls in India seem especially worrying. According to the report, 57 percent of adolescent boys aged 15 to 19 think a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances.

Which are?

“If his wife burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children or refuses sexual relations,” says the report.

Food for thought? Certainly.


PHOTO CREDIT: A girl looks out of a car window on a rainy day in Mumbai, July 8, 2009. REUTERS/Arko Datta

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