The young population, especially when in their adolescent phase, that usually ranges between ages 11 and 19, is very important for the country’s future.
They can either become a catalyst for bringing a progressive change in all aspects of the country, or end up creating a disaster. It all depends on the investment done on them and opportunities given to them. Among other concerned investments, their physical and mental wellbeing is the most important factor as it helps in their transformation into adults.
According to the recently launched UNDP report, Pakistan constitutes the largest number of young people. Around 64 percent of the population is below the age of 30, and 29 percent is between the ages of 15 and 29. However, the National Nutrition Survey, 2010, depicts that the nutritional concerns of these adolescents have largely remained unaddressed. Around 22 percent adolescents are stunted, of which most are girls. Surveys reflect that the nutritional status of Pakistani girls in their late adolescence (aged 15 to 19 years) is distressing. They have been found to have high micronutrient deficiencies as anaemia (54 percent), folic acid (49 percent), zinc (42 percent) and vitamin A (40 percent).
As evidence suggests that delayed childbearing – until at least 20 years of age – reduces under-nutrition in children and that girls who are in their early adolescence are more likely to give birth to low birth-weight children, there is a need to focus on this group of population. But unfortunately, there are no specific programmes or plans addressing the nutritional needs of adolescents, especially girls.
To combat this situation, schools are one of the best places to reach out to adolescents. In this context, school feeding programmes (SFPs) have set a global precedent, especially in countries of Africa. Provision of nutritious meal or fortified food at schools is a result-oriented approach to help children develop healthy minds and bodies. The programmes are an investment in their future as well as the country’s. Providing food in school also serves as an incentive to increase enrolment and improve students’ attendance. This will especially be good for girls in Pakistan as currently one-third of all adolescent girls in the country are illiterate – the lower-income group has a much higher rate (up to 70 percent).
SFPs can result in a positive outcome for keeping girls in schools and providing them the opportunity to acquire education and marry at a later time. Southern Ethiopia is one success story of the school feeding programme. In one pilot study, a strong link was found to have been established between the programme and the improved dietary diversity, nutritional status and class attendance of the schoolchildren. As a result, robust recommendations were given by the World Food Programme to the government to scale up the SFP for all public schools.
A significant trial conducted by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), as a component of their school feeding programme, delivered iron-rich fortified biscuits to 61,000 school-age children in India. As a result of the intervention, it was concluded that the children who ate fortified rice experienced a significant reduction in illnesses as compared to those who did not. Similarly, in Brazil, provision of fortified dry milk has shown major improvements in the health and nutrition status of school-going children through the school milk programme.
Pakistan with its current prevalence of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in young children should also adopt the SFP. Fortified milk or food for malnourished children, especially for adolescent school-going girls, can bring a change in their nutrition and health status. In addition to provision of meals, a curriculum-based nutrition programme is another successful intervention to create awareness regarding the significance of nutrition. Nutrition should be made a mandatory component of the syllabi of middle and high school children. Frequent trainings should be given to teachers on the importance of nutrition. They can then relay the message to parents as well.
According to the UNDP report, Pakistan should focus on registering millions of children in schools and provide them an enabling environment so that it can utilise 64 percent of the youth and help its economy become sustainable faster. With its alarming indicators of malnutrition, Pakistan should address the issue on an emergency basis. Since the most valuable population to be targeted is the youth, as it constitutes majority of the country’s population, there is a need to express political will, establish policies and strengthen interventions to improve the youth’s nutrition and health status, using their schools and learning places as entry points.
The writer is a public health consultant.