DHARBHANGA: When Palak was found barely breathing buried under a mound of soil in an impoverished village in eastern India, doctors who treated the abandoned new-born girl knew that nursing her back to health would not be easy.
Two months on, Palak’s tiny frame — weighing half of what it should for her age — lies crumpled in a bed in a malnutrition intensive care unit in Bihar state, as she feebly cries for attention.
Despite India’s economic boom over the last two decades, 46 per cent of its children under five are underweight, 48pc are stunted and 25pc are wasted, according to the latest government figures.
But what is not so widely known is that the majority are girls, like Palak — abandoned, neglected or given less nutritious food than their male siblings, say health workers, attributing it to patriarchal attitudes in the country.
“A healthy, five-month-old baby should weigh at least 5 kilograms, but we come across two-year-olds weighing that,” said Ziaul Haque, medical activities manager for the charity Mdecins Sans Frontires (MSF) India, which runs the centre in Dharbhanga district.
“Girls constitute more than two-thirds of patients, who are admitted and also those who drop out before completing the treatment,” he added.
Girls get less
Child malnutrition is an underlying cause of death for 3 million children annually across the world — nearly half of all child deaths — with most dying from preventable illnesses like diarrhea due to weak immune systems, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Those lucky enough to survive, grow up without enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals, causing their brains and bodies to be stunted which means they cannot fulfill their physical, academic or economic potential.
Increasing studies show that malnutrition rates are much higher in girls than in boys.
The centre is the only one in the district to offer therapeutic food for acutely malnourished children and has a 30-bed intensive care unit to treat tubercular infections, anemia and respiratory diseases.
But even when girls start receiving the free treatment, they have a higher rate of drop-out compared to boys.
The problem of malnutrition starts well before birth in countries such as India, where there are high rates of child marriage, despite the age-old practice being illegal.
About 47pc of women aged between 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18 in India, according to the latest government figures.
The custom hampers efforts to improve women’s status, as it cuts across every part of a girl’s development and creates a vicious cycle of malnutrition, poor health and ignorance, gender experts say.
A child bride is more likely to drop out of school and have serious complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Her children are more likely to be underweight and may be lucky to survive beyond the age of five.
The fever did not subside, so I took her to the local doctor, who said she had pneumonia,” she said, shaking a rattle at the crying child lying on the bed in a blue T-shirt.
“The treatment went on for months, but my daughter is getting weaker.”