The findings of a new study released this month showing that 42 percent of children under five in India are malnourished call into question some of the most fundamental assumptions about the connection between economic growth and development.
It seemed to be common sense that when a country experiences striking economic growth, indicators of poverty like malnutrition, should significantly decline. Yet India has experienced robust economic growth (last year’s GDP growth rate was 8 to 9 percent) and still the rates of malnutrition remain stubbornly high.
This phenomenon of high economic growth and high malnutrition levels has been observed for some time now, and named the South Asian Enigma by development practitioners. Researchers have looked to Sub-Saharan Africa, where countries have experienced less economic growth and yet have a lower percentage of malnourished children, in an effort to understand what causes the disparity in India and other South Asian countries. One of the key findings is that women’s decision-making power is much lower in South Asia than Sub-Saharan Africa, and that women’s decision-making power has a strong effect on household nutrition.
Indian Prime Minister Singh has acknowledged the findings on child malnutrition, calling it a “national shame.” He has also called on policymakers to consider many different linkages as they shape their response, including linkages between education and health, between sanitation and hygiene, and between drinking water and nutrition. All of these areas of development are essential for combating child malnutrition. What’s missing is development policy strategies that work to improve women’s status and decision-making power.
Improving women’s low status within the family and the community will also go a long way toward ensuring better nutrition for India’s children. When women have assets in their own name, especially secure rights to land, they often experience an increase in status and power in the community and in their household. There is an increasing body of research that points to the connection between women’s land rights and increased nutrition for the family:
- A study in Nepal found that children are less likely to be underweight if their mother owned land.
- Another study by researchers in Nicaragua and Honduras in 2002 found that families spend more on food when the woman of the house owns land.
- And another study in Ghana found that families allocate larger proportion of their household budget to food when the woman owns a larger share of the household’s farmland.
We’ve seen it in our work from Rwanda to India, when women have secure rights to the land, either jointly with her husband or on her own, the family does better in a host of ways: improved educational outcomes, nutrition, and health.
Across India, national and many state governments already recognize this and are working to put a powerful asset – land – into women’s hands.
Such programs should be replicated and dramatically expanded.
Just last year officials in Odisha opened the first Women’s Land Rights Facilitations Center. And officials in West Bengal have begun adding the names of women to all the pattas (land titles) they distribute in their micro-plot poverty alleviation program. Officials in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha, and West Bengal are all working to ensure that more women find their names on the title documents to the land they till.