How many of us have seen children trying to clean our car’s windshield at every other signal. Or seen our maid’s child playing in our garage, eating dirt, while she is attending to us and our children. These pale, skinny, listless children are all around us and they are the malnourished children of our world.
Pakistan is ranked among the top five countries in the world that has more than half of the world’s malnourished children, says a report published recently by the UK charity, Save the Children. One in four children in the world are stunted. In a country like Pakistan, this figure is much higher. Stunted growth means their body and brain have failed to develop properly because of malnutrition. About 43.6 per cent children in the country are officially reported stunted and if no concerted action is taken, Pakistan will have the highest proportion of stunted children as a part of its population, within the next 15 years. Apart from coming up with national level plans to deal with this acute shortage and price hike of necessary food items, the most obvious way of dealing with this issue is to have less children, yet we keep procreating at an alarming rate, hoping that God will provide for them.
World malnutrition and hunger has put to rest the philosophical approach that every child brings his or her own food. However, it is still considered a valid excuse for having large families. What parents do not realise is that their malnourished children are not only disadvantaged as children, but they will remain so as adults and will earn at least 20 per cent less on average than those who have had a healthy childhood.
The country’s population is estimated to rise by 300 million by 2030 and our water resources — necessary for food growth, hygiene and sanitation — are dwindling fast. Pakistan has slid from being a water affluent country to a water scarce country; imagine how bad the situation would be with 120 million additional mouths to feed and even less food and water than we have right now.
Twenty-two per cent of the people in Pakistan can never afford to buy staple foods for their families every week. The policymakers and decision-makers have to take notice now, and take measures to realistically deal with this issue. Poverty reduction measures, like the Benazir Income Support Programme alone can not tackle the population time bomb; it has to be paired with stringent population control actions.
In a country where advocating family planning is still a taboo, we need to address this issue as an emergency. There are sections in the society that take pride in the fact that we will become the most populous Muslim nation soon. What is the point in taking pride in producing the world’s biggest group of hungry, malnourished children and adults with limited abilities to fend for themselves, who lack prospects for future growth?
We need to create a society where small families are socially desirable and it can be created through deliberate social engineering by the state and clergy. It has already happened in Iran and Bangladesh and it can happen in Pakistan as well.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2012.