Multi-sector approach to improve nutrition in the Thar

The most recent National Family Health Survey from 2005-6 found that a staggering 66% of children under 5 years old in Rajasthan were stunted (indicating chronic malnutrition), 28% had wasting (indicating acute malnutrition), and 53% of women aged 15-49 were anemic.1 This takes place in a setting where 80% of people living in rural communities of the Thar Desert rely primarily on agricultural livelihoods that are challenged by the arid climate and limited annual rainfall.

Nutrition-specific activities alone cannot sustainably enhance nutrition status. Improving nutrition in the Thar Desert requires a multi-sector strategy and a context-specific approach. Therefore, GRAVIS implements diverse activities to comprehensively address challenges that are linked together.

This past year, GRAVIS partnered with Bioversity International and the Central Arid Zone Research Institute to identify plant and animal species used at household and community levels. The survey collected data on farm diversity, household dietary diversity and market diversity of rural communities in the Thar. The diversity surveys and inventory of traditional plant varieties can help identify gaps in micronutrient availability and consumption.

The survey findings will also be useful to identify traditional foods, as GRAVIS seeks to establish school horticulture units, also known as school gardens, to increase the dietary diversity of school mid-day meals. The mid-day meal program provides daily lunch to schoolchildren. Micronutrient-rich fruits and vegetable grown in horticulture units can be incorporated into the school lunch. Gardens can also serve as a platform for teaching students about plant varieties and horticulture techniques. Further, these activities can be integrated into nutrition education modules.

Improvements in agriculture and livestock activities do not necessarily translate into improved nutrition for vulnerable household members. Women’s empowerment is an essential component in the pathway from agriculture inputs to intra-household resource allocation to child nutrition. In 2013, The Lancet published a series on Maternal and Child Nutrition in which authors suggested how schooling might enhance nutrition via the following overlapping pathways:

  • Transmit information about health and nutrition directly
  • Teach numeracy and literacy, thereby assisting caregivers in acquiring information and possibly nutrition knowledge
  • Expose individuals to new environments, making them receptive to modern medicine
  • Impart self-confidence, which enhances women’s roles in decision-making, and their interactions with health-care professional
  • Provide women with the opportunity to form social networks, which can be of particular importance in isolated rural areas 2

In the Thar, water insecurity can interfere with girls’ school attendance because women and girls are responsible for collecting water. Girls are unable to attend school because water sources are many kilometers away from the household, and fetching water occupies their day. GRAVIS’ work to bring safe and sustainable water sources closer to households has helped make time available for girls to attend school. Currently, GRAVIS operates 49 schools made up of 45% girls and 55% boys. Schooling of both boys and girls can contribute to better nutrition status for themselves as adults, and for the next generation of children.

References:

1.  International Institute for Population Sciences. India National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-06: International Institute for Population Sciences; 2007.

2.  Ruel MT, Alderman H. Nutrition-sensitive interventions and programmes: how can they help to accelerate progress in improving maternal and child nutrition? The Lancet. 2013.

*Jocelyn Boiteau, Volunteer

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