This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on 9 May 2019.
THE Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia and the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development, in their latest publication Stunting in Malaysia: Costs, Causes and Courses for Action, has called on the government to make childhood stunting a national priority and to have policies to tackle the underlying causes.
There is a need to re-evaluate how the government has thus far addressed the problem.
Stunting is the inability of children to reach their potential height for their age.
More than just affecting height, stunting is a serious manifestation of malnutrition. It adversely impacts the health, education and productivity of children, with serious social and economic costs for the country.
Studies estimate that adults who were stunted as children earn 20 per cent less in their working life than those who were not. Stunting also negatively impacts a country’s per capita income.
More attention needs to be paid to the underlying causes and not just the direct causes of stunting. Gaps exist in mother and child’s access to household food security; adequate care and feeding practices; access to healthcare services; and the presence of a healthy environment.
A recent United Nations Children’s Fund study found that 12 per cent of children living in urban low-cost flats had fewer than three meals a day.
Some 97 per cent of these households said high food prices prevented them from preparing healthy meals for their children.
One in two households reported they did not have money to buy food in recent months.
Care and feeding practices were also unsatisfactory. High anaemia rates suggested that nutrient requirements for women were not being met.
On the other hand, 19.2 per cent of Malaysian children aged between 6 and 23 months did not achieve the prescribed minimum meal frequency of two meals a day.
These figures exist within a larger pattern of poor eating habits and low health literacy among Malaysian families, with only 6.6 per cent of adults having adequate health literacy.
Malaysia has an impressive overall performance when it comes to access to water and sanitation, yet gaps do exist, for instance, in Orang Asli communities.
Existing government initiatives to address stunting must evolve to become multidimensional in practice.
The policy on stunting must be multisectoral in approach and focus on the first 1,000 days of the child.
The report recommends a multiagency steering committee, which should be chaired by the prime minister, to address child malnutrition, and the establishment of a bipartisan parliamentary standing committee to monitor the implementation of the national roadmap on children’s wellbeing.
Other policy recommendations include the introduction of an unconditional cash transfer scheme covering the 1,000-day window for all children below the age of 2, and mass public awareness campaigns on stunting and malnutrition.
DEREK KOK: Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia; Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development.