New Delhi: “Nutrition is important for children and mothers. We know this from what we see in our homes and villages. This is needed today and right now”, said Vandana Devi, President Jagriti Mahila Prerna Laghu Udyog. A small government community centre in the middle of the rural landscape in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, where forty percent of India’s malnourished children live, has lately been charged with high energy and optimism, because of the women’s self-help groups in the nearby villages.
Wearing blue dungarees or dresses with traditional sarees, the women from the micro-enterprise show a clear sense of purpose and intent as they go about their work at the unit that makes nutritious age-appropriate products for young children, pregnant and lactating women, and adolescent girls.
The unit is run by women from the nearby villages and the products are supplied. Since we relate to each other, the quality and value of what we make are appreciated by everyone, she added while adding the use of filtered water and other measures that are taken for keeping the hygiene standards.
Explaining the localisation that connects nutrition services and empowerment, Vandana Devi, mother of three, said,
For the women here the unit and coming together has brought changes in the families and personal lives. We are earning members, doing business and the community is more aware now of the importance of nutrition.
Ms Devi is the president of the micro-enterprise that runs the production unit at the Gauspur village in Fatehpur district some 84 miles from the state capital Lucknow.
The First 1,000 Days
The first 1,000 days of life – roughly the time between conception and a child’s second birthday – is a special period of opportunity when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment are established. In India, this period is effectively catered to by the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme through the take-home rations.
The women working in this unit correctly recognise that if the take-home ration produced by them is nutritious, it can play an important role in preventing malnutrition among children. Therefore, the product made by them consists of good quality protein in the form of skimmed milk powder, fat through the addition of oils and vitamins and minerals, says Dr Shariqua Yunus, who leads the nutrition portfolio of World Food Programme (WFP) in India and has been driving this.
India has made great progress over the years on food production by achieving self-sufficiency, initiating promising models for resilient and sustainable livelihoods, and inclusion through the food safety net. However, the prevalence of malnutrition at a country level continues to remain high. 35.5 per cent of children under 5 years of age are stunted low-height-for-age); 19.3 per cent are wasted (low-weight-for-height), and 32.1 per cent are underweight including a high prevalence of anaemia and micronutrient deficiency disorders. While the indicators of undernutrition have shown a reduction between the two rounds of the National Family Health Survey 4 (2015-16) and NFHS-5 (2019-21), the prevalence of anemia and obesity or overweight has increased across all age groups.
Localisation And Empowerment
Madhu Devi, the newest member to join the unit at the time, said,
Working at the unit has changed how my family looks at me. They see me as a working woman now. What makes me happy is that my work will help children and mothers.
She carried a smile that rarely left her face even as she pushes carts filled with grains to the processing unit.
Engaging community women to run the take-home ration production units is a unique gender-transformative initiative, which not only provides livelihood opportunities to the local women but also empowers them economically. It is heartening to see the benefits of the initiative visible on the women even within a few months of its inception.
Aradhana Srivastav, WFP’s gender lead in India who has been closely working on the empowerment component of the nutrition-focused initiative, said,
Women consider their job and incomes as major achievements. The exposure that they’ve got dealing with people and matters outside the confines of their home, independently, without the interference of their family, has enhanced their self-confidence and given them a sense of power. The money that they bring has improved their status within the family and the community too, which has increased their participation in decision-making at both levels. All this is new, and empowering, and the women are already reveling in it.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
In July last year, Vandana Devi was one of the women who interacted with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath through video conferencing as he provided state investment to the production unit as a sign of the state’s commitment towards the project.
I was nervous, the night before, as I was representing all the women who work at the nutrition production unit. But was ready and happy that we got money from the government. Everyone now takes it seriously, added Vandana Devi.
Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for 202 decentralised Take-Home Rations (THR) production units across 43 districts of Uttar Pradesh on 21st December.
The production unit is part of a partnership between the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Government of Uttar Pradesh. The production units’ pilot has become a harbinger of a large policy change as these are being scaled from two districts to the entire state with over 200 units being announced by the Prime Minister of India recently.
As part of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Anganwadi centres play a crucial role in supporting households, particularly from low-income families, by providing childcare, health and nutrition, education, supplementary nutrition, immunisation, health check-up, and referral services.
(Parvinder Singh is the Head of Communications at the United Nations World Food Programme in India. Parvinder has a research degree in Indian economic history from JNU, with Doctoral Fellowship from ICSSR, and qualifications in public policy.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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