Casteism Linked to Stunted Growth in Indian Children, Research Shows
One-third of the world’s “stunted children” — or children under five whose height, relative to their age, is below acceptable standards — live in India. While stunting has long been associated with insufficient nutrient intake and frequent infections, a new study suggests casteism may have a role to play in India’s numbers too.
36% of children in India are stunted — as opposed to 31% in poorer countries of sub-Saharan Africa — leading to something called the “Indian Enigma” that has continued to baffle scientists over the years. What makes India’s case puzzling is that children’s height is typically linked to poverty — the rates of which are higher in sub-Saharan Africa than in India — and yet, more children here experience stunted growth.
Published last month, this study may have finally solved the puzzle. According to the scientists, the key to the “Indian Enigma” lies in casteism — a factor past studies overlooked.
The findings of the present study suggest that children from dominant castes are taller than their African counterparts.
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“The evidence shows that the illegal, but widespread, practice of untouchability is positively associated with height gaps between upper and lower-caste (Dalit) children… The results moreover suggest a role for discriminatory practices in affecting service delivery to pregnant and nursing mothers from stigmatized groups and consequently the health outcomes of lower caste children,” the study’s authors, Ashwini Deshpande and Rajesh Ramachandran, wrote in The Print.
Children from the SC/ST community were found to be 14% more likely to be stunted than dominant-caste Hindu children; children from the OBC community 10% more likely, and upper-caste Muslim children 9%. “In other words, the gaps in child heights between the social groups in India are two to three times greater than the India-[sub-Saharan Africa] child height gap,” the authors noted.
The present findings suggest that caste considerations are imperative to understanding — and addressing — the problem of chronic malnourishment in India.