No dessert in the desert: Underfed women serve their husbands, children first

For the people of Tharparkar, surviving on 1,000 calories less than needed is a way of life.

Zimyad Ahmed August 03, 2011


At dusk, a Hindu woman dressed in a saari worked quietly in her family’s dimly lit twig hut. The hut’s small round interior was lit only by the fire of a tandoor. As she squatted near the flames, preparing rotis, a tiny girl, still unaccustomed to standing on her own, clung to her mother’s dupatta. Nearby, the girl’s two brothers shared a plate of sliced mango.

“Here women feed their husbands first, their children second, while they themselves eat whatever leftovers remain.” explained Dr Shankar Lal, a doctor in Tharparkar and member of Baahn Beli, an NGO that works in the area. He explains this disbalance: “It is part of their tradition but it leaves the women undernourished.”

Every day, this woman travels 3 kilometres on foot to fetch drinking water. Her daily routine is the same as that of thousands of women in the district. In addition to the labour involved in gathering water, women spend grueling days working under the sun, in the open field. They also cook and care for their children and husbands, causing them to expend an enormous amount of calories each day.

And thus, malnutrition consistently plagues a population of over one million people. It is the combined effect that poverty, illiteracy and weak family planning have on the region. “A lack of regular access to food coupled with economic hardships often force people to survive on far less nutrition than is required,” Lal said. “The problem is compounded when an average of eight children have to be fed per family.” An intake of around 2,600 calories is essential for an average human adult to remain healthy, yet the majority of residents here are forced to survive on less than 1,600 calories a day.

Malnourished people are more susceptible to conditions such as anemia and hepatitis as well as viral and non-viral diseases.

On an ordinary day, residents of Tharparkar eat a few rotis, some cooked vegetables and tea. “On occasion, they manage to eat three whole meals a day,” Lal said.

Access to meat is limited, as livestock are raised primarily to produce milk. Butter can be produced in the rainy season when the animals are healthier because there is more grass. The excess milk is stored and using traditional methods, families can produce butter. “However, due to a lack of infrastructure such as functional roads, selling this butter at the market becomes difficult,” explained Younus Budhani, the director of Baahn Beli.

For its part, Baahn Beli has set up three clinics across Tharparkar to specifically deal with malnutrition in women and children and the various health complications resulting from a lack of nutrition. Pregnant women and women nursing new-born babies need between 3,000 and 3,500 calories on average. As a result, malnutrition during pregnancy can lead to iron deficiencies, premature births and undernourished babies. Birth abnormalities may occur, causing children to be born very weak and with physical deformities. “Our highest priority is to provide free medicines, including folic acid, to help counteract iron deficiencies and other problems related to malnutrition,” said Lal.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2011.

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