When six year old Kiran Wagh joined the Mission Education centre at Kalyan in Maharashtra, her teachers took note of her extreme health condition. She was visibly malnourished, looked much younger than her age and was covered in dirt.
On interacting with Kiran’s parents, her teachers learnt that the family was lucky to get even one full meal in a day. Her parents work at a nearby brick kiln and toil hard to feed their daughter. Kiran often accompanied her parents to work and had got into a habit of eating mud, which was also adversely affecting her health.
Because of her weakness, Kiran was less responsive in class and never participated in any activity either. Over the year, her health problems increased and she would often take leave, missing out on her classes. Her teachers realized that the lack of proper nutrition, hygiene and subsequent ill health was impairing Kiran’s attention span and learning abilities, and the damage could be permanent.
Kiran’s case is not unique. Malnutrition is more prevalent in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa. One in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS III), 38% of all children below the age of five have stymied growth and are too small for their age, 46% are underweight and 16% are emaciated.
A critical issue in itself, lack of nutrition, has repercussions in every sphere of child development, as it stunts the physical as well as mental growth of children. Malnourished children are less likely to perform well in school, even to regularly attend school. This leads to low confidence levels and eventually drop-outs.
Being relegated to a neglected position in our socio-cultural context, girl children become the worst sufferers. Lack of nutrition and health problems often become an excuse for forcing girls out of school, and into domestic duties and early marriages. Barely able to survive themselves, these young girls are expected to take on the responsibility of motherhood, leading to high maternal and infant mortality rates.
Understanding that nutrition and health form an important aspect of a child’s growing up years, and can have a huge impact on her/ his education, Smile Foundation has always included them as integral aspects of the Mission Education programme
But over time it was realized that provision of nutrition and health facilities at the centres might not be enough to build a healthy next generation. Low awareness about the importance of health and nutrition among the socio-economically marginalized communities, like in Kiran’s case, was also a major reason for the vulnerable health condition of children.
Busy earning daily wages to help their families survive, most parents never considered health and nutrition to be a priority. While all of them wanted their children to be educated, healthy and have a bright future, few of them knew that bringing basic changes in their eating habits could ensure all this. Never having been to school and having bare minimum knowledge of hygiene practices, they never thought that most diseases can be prevented by including the simple act of hand washing in their daily routine. It was observed that the goal of holistic development for children could only be achieved, if this lack of awareness is addressed.
In keeping with its life cycle approach, Smile Foundation initiated a nationwide awareness campaign on the importance of nutrition and health in underprivileged communities across India, with support from Yum! and Herbalife. Covering Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, New Delhi, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Tripura, Maharashtra, Goa, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu, the campaign aimed at sensitizing children, their families and communities, towards the importance of nutritious food, leading to better health, education and other opportunities for the children.
External resource persons like dieticians, nutritionists, doctors and child specialists were engaged to give a wider scope to the campaign, and joined teachers from Mission Education centres in sensitizing the community members. The comprehensively designed campaign included detailed and interactive sessions on the importance of health, personal hygiene and nutrition. Innovative activities like street plays and songs were performed to engage the people and help them grasp the message easily.
Workshops were held for mothers where they were taught about growing their own kitchen garden, nutritious ingredients that are commonly available but ignored, and preparing low cost and no cost nutritious food recipes. Demonstrations on hand washing and oral hygiene were carried out to encourage the mothers to imbibe routine healthy habits in their own lives and also their children’s.
Children from the centres were actively involved in the conceptualization of the awareness campaign, so that they could take ownership and lead the initiative. Theme-based sessions for the children like poster-making, painting, slogan-writing, story-writing competitions on healthy eating habits were organized. Coming up with interesting ideas and creative slogans like “Santulit Ahaar, Humara Janmsidh Adhikaar”, “Fal aur sabzi khoob khao, rogon ko koso door bhagao”, “Hari Sabziyon ka karke sewan, sehat
bhara bane jaye jeevan”, the children became the driving force of the campaign.
With the message being driven home by their own children, the parents were highly motivated to set a positive and healthy food culture. They joined the campaign with full force, as did other community stakeholders, including the Panchayat members, the local administration, educationists and health officials.
Smile Foundation has also been raising awareness in the civil society on the issue of nutrition of children through its initiative ‘Nutrition for Education’. Joining hands with celebrities like Michelin starred Chef Vikas Khanna, and through innovative concepts like Cook for Smile and Dine with Smile, Smile Foundation has been directly involving responsible corporate, individuals and institutions, in the cause to strengthen it further.
As an extension of its efforts, Smile Foundation has integrated nutrition awareness in its health and women empowerment programmes, with special focus on mothers, school children and adolescent girls. Catering specifically to their particular needs, awareness sessions, workshops and one-on-one counselling are held on subjects such as nutrition for growth, foods that enhance immunization, combating anaemia, diet for expecting and lactating mothers, and nutrition supplements.
Today, India is riding on a promising tide of economic and social development, but this only remains a hollow projection, when our children do not have access to even the most basic human needs, like nutrition and education. Our children will lay the foundation for our country’s future, but this might be too heavy a responsibility for their weak shoulders. We must come together to nurture, nourish, educate and empower our children, to help build a healthy, progressive nation.