Much of the focus from the international community has been on ending child undernutrition and interventions that improve growth and development of kids. One population that has been largely neglected is adolescent girls and young women.
Evidence shows that maternal undernutrition can influence a child’s chances in life by increasing risk of death, but also the child’s growth and development. There is also an increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes for children. Scary stuff. So if a women herself is undernourished, and she gets pregnant, the chances of her child being undernourished, and developing heart disease as an adult are high. Talk about a terrible double misfortune, that is, if the child can survive past her fifth birthday.
But not only is the child at risk. Women who are malnourished are also more susceptible to cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk. This is not just a situation of the undernourished where small women who are undernourished give birth to small babies and the cycle continues. This also happens for women who are overweight. Overweight pregnant women can also influence a child’s future fate. Much of this fate occurs in utero before a child is even born (termed programming). There is even a body of evidence linking this programming to the placenta. Again, scary stuff.
If the evidence holds up that maternal malnutrition strongly influences infant health, there is a need for a shift in the way nutritionists and health practitioners do their work and who they are working for.
So what to do? Well, one good starting point is to work with adolescent girls. In many places where there are huge inequities and poverty, girls tend to drop out of school because of household and community demands and sometimes get married off too early. By keeping girls in school and providing nutrition throughout their growth and life cycle, the potential to delay early marriage and pregnancies is greater. And we know that the chance of having a child who is stunted decreases 5% for every year a girl stays in school.
So, as the old adage goes, “A human being is not attaining her full heights until she is educated.”