Health

The Indian Enigma

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India is home to one of the world’s fastest growing economies.  With a real GDP growth rate of 7.20 percent, India’s GDP purchasing power parity has risen to now serve as the fourth wealthiest state, behind only the European Union, the United States, and China. Growth in the country’s agricultural sector contributed for up to 21 percent of the GDP in 2011; however, this figure likely underestimates the sector’s importance as many rural poor households depend on the rain-fed agriculture and forestry for their livelihoods.  Although India’s economic gains should be good news for all those living within its borders, an unfortunate disconnect has recently taken shape that demonstrates the harsh remaining gender inequities.

In 2011, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its annual Global Gender Gap Report, demonstrating the state of gender inequalities around the world. From 2006 to 2011, India consistently fell in its gender equality rank in categories such as economic participation, educational attainment and health and survival.  By 2011, India ranked at 113th of 135 countries and now stands as one of the most gender unequal societies in the world. To make matters worse, a 2011 Oxfam International report found that the number of hungry people in India rose by 65 million from 1990 to 2005, rising to a figure so large that approximately one in four of the world’s hungry people now live in India. This spike in hunger and gender inequality contradicts patterns found in similar growing economies such as Brazil and Russia, causing some researchers to dub this phenomenon, “The Indian Enigma.”

Stark gender inequities are particularly true in the case of nutrition and food security. Nutrition related gender inequities can be demonstrated numerically in various forms as women and girls are continuously at greater risk for death and disease from undernutrition.  For example, Indian women suffer from a maternal mortality ratio of 230 per 100,000 live births and an infant mortality rate of 48 per 1,000 live births [1]. More than half of India’s female population suffer from anemia[2] and 35.8 percent live with an unhealthy Body Mass Index (BMI) of under 18.5.  A growing cultural preference for sons and increase of “gendercide” may be attributable to the rising gender inequalities, as parents more likely feed daughters only what food is available after the son has been fed.

Adolescent undernutrition also affects final adult body size and can result in permanent stunting or thinness.  Upon maturation, undernutrition can result in devastating intergenerational effects, whereby such women are at greater risk of having low birth weight babies, raising the baby’s risk for childhood mortality. Maternal undernutrition can also affect the developing fetus by potentially causing long-lasting negative physical and mental side effects on the health of the child. The issue of malnutrition related to maternal and pediatric development was recently brought to the forefront in a five-part series published in the renowned scientific journal, The Lancet, as researchers discovered that the food and nutrients consumed by the mother during the gestational period and by the child within the first thousand days of life were important determinants of an individual’s capability for greater learning, economic productivity, and improved health.

The good news is that there is a silver lining.  In March of 2010, the Indian Parliament’s upper house passed a bill stating that one-third of its representatives must be female.  With this bill’s passage, one can hope that women’s issues across the country will be more widely addressed, including those of food security and nutrition.


[1] To compare, the United States has a maternal mortality ratio of 24 and an infant mortality rate of 6.

[2] 51.8 percent of Indian women suffer from anemia.

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Category: Health
Tagged with: Development    Food Security    Gender    Global Health    India    Nutrition    women's rights

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  • Pingback: The Indian Enigma – Part II | Girls' Globe

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    Sally Pope

    Great first post, Elisabeth! Interesting to learn about the inequities when it comes to women and food in India. It’s so disheartening to see a country the lost economic potential of half the population in a country with the dichotomy of a rapidly expanding economy and so much poverty. It makes you wonder where India would be if all Indian women were given the chance to lead healthy, productive lives and contribute to the growing economy of this country.

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    Thanks Elisabeth for your post! It is incredible how gender inequality is so visible in malnutrition and hunger in India. This is definately linked to the underlying status of women in the country. It would be really interesting to hear about organizations that are actually working to make a change to this Indian Enigma, and if/how this is visible at the grassroots level…

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