June 12, 2014: Bangladeshi girl Sharmin, 13, looks into the camera as she works in a plastic recycling factory.
DHAKA – Frolicking on the wall of his tin hut in the capital city of Bangladesh, three-year-old Rozzob Ali has the same combination of mischief, charm and rambunctious energy like lots of other boys.
But the fourth of five children, all born in a slum in Dhaka, Ali shows a danger sign – at 80 inches tall, he is a good 10 cm shorter than the ideal height for a guy of his age.
Poverty and a diet of mostly cooked rice or mashed potatoes partly to blame for his stunt, which is caused by a lack of nutrients, proteins, vitamins and minerals in meat, fruit and vegetables.
Research shows that a deficiency of nutrition in the first 1000 days of a child’s life can lead to irreversible damage to the health, growth and development.
Nutritious food has become even harder to afford because ‘ Ali’s father was forced to work in a brick factory to pay off a debt.
It will take him at least six months to pay back what he owes, that the family of the little income that he would earn to pull rickshaws around Dhaka’s teeming streets.
“How can I feed the children? How can I pay the rent?” said Ali’s mother, Taslima Begum, who spends her days picking up discarded plastic bottles in a chic neighborhood to sell for recycling in the hopes of making a dollar or two.
The rate of stunting in under-fives in Bangladesh has dropped to 36 percent from 45 percent in 2000, official figures show, partly due to a growing economy that has helped lift about 20 million people out of poverty over the past two decades.
But more than 5.5 million Bangladeshi children under the age of five are still affected by the disorder.
Health experts say a major challenge for the government is to reduce stunting, especially in the ever-expanding slums, where it is much worse than in other areas.
“There is a reduction in the level of stunting in Bangladesh, but it remains unacceptably high”, Anuradha Narayan, the food, the director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Bangladesh, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“At this moment, Bangladesh is still one of the 20 countries in the world with the largest burden of stunting in the children.”
A 2016 study by UNICEF and the Bangladeshi government shows the poorest children are disproportionately affected, with 40 percent of the children in shanty towns that are underdeveloped in comparison with the total urban average of 26 percent.
“The children in the urban slums tend to be from families that are among the most vulnerable,” Narayan said. “Families in the urban slums may be more food insecure, but also living in an environment that increase the risk of disease and infections.”
Of Bangladesh’s 160 million people, about 2.2 million live in the slums of 14,000, according to 2014 a slum census.
In Balurmath slum where Ali grew up, the putrid smell of the sewer seeping through the air as children play barefoot in the narrow alleyways bordered by corrugated iron sheet houses.
Residents bathe in the open, close to women filleting fish and girls cooking on mud stoves.
Poor sanitation and diseases associated with contaminated water, such as diarrhea, which causes vital nutrients to be lost from the body, are a common pest.
UNICEF Narayan said progress was hampered by the government’s focus on the development of infrastructure.
“Investment in nutrition is not getting the attention that a bridge or a road or infrastructure would be able to get,” she said.
Ministry of health officials agree more needs to be done to improve nutrition among the slum residents.
“We try to make this in a different way,” Roxana Quader, a senior ministry official, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, without giving details.
In October last year, the World Bank announced that it would increase funding to tackle stunt in Bangladesh to $1 billion in the next three years, approximately $330 million has been invested in two programs.
A part of the money would be spent on giving of 600,000 families cash to buy healthy food for their children in exchange for regular monitoring of their development, such as the length and the weight.
“Investing in reducing child stunting should be a priority in Bangladesh,” Qimiao Fan, the World Bank Bangladesh country director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
If Bangladesh is to achieve its goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2021, “investing in child nutrition and their cognitive development is one of the most cost-effective development assistance,” Fan said.
Health experts say this is essential, because under-fed girls tend to grow up and give birth to under-nourished babies – unless action is taken.
They say that more attention should be made about the link between the beginning of the marriage and stunting, and the importance of allowing more time between pregnancies to give mothers a chance to regain their health.
For many people struggling to survive in the slums, nutritious food remains a luxury that they cannot afford.
Manik Mia, a father of six, is worried about his daughter Jannatul, who is five this month. Measuring 82 inches, she is hampered seriously.
He brings to the $38 monthly income that one of his daughters earn as a maid to pay the rent. Something else is going to eat.
“We know eggs and milk are good for babies, but how can we buy them?” he said with a shrug.