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Stunting: Malnutrition or Exploitation?

This article has been published in Sight And Life, Vol 30(2)2016. See here (page 117).
Childhood stunting is one of the most significant impediments to human development, globally affecting approximately 162 million children under the age of 5 years. Stunting, or being too short for one’s age, is defined as a height that is more than two standard deviations below the World Health Organization (WHO) Child Growth Standards median[1]. Factors that contribute to stunted growth and development include – but are not limited to – poor maternal health and nutrition, inadequate infant and young child feeding practices, and infection.

Klaus Kraemer, quite rightly, claims that stunting should be made a development indicator[2].
Stunting is the face of poverty[3] and that observation is very true, but endemic poverty also induces child labour. If nutrition of a child is just above the threshold that could result in stunting, the child would normally grow to a normal height. But, if the child has to work long hours and perform calories-consuming manual labour, then those calories and other nutrients cannot be used for growth. This too would result in stunting, while the intake of nutrients are within the accepted levels.

Therefore, I would suggest that stunting is not only the result of malnutrition, but also of child exploitation. Both are indicative of poverty.

However, if children in developed countries are forced to undergo rigourous training for, say gymnastics or soccer, growth will also be stunted. Take, for instance, female gymnastics that resemble small children but are already adults[4]. While we all can agree that these athletes probably eat meals that contain more than enough nutrients, their bodies cannot resolve where to use these nutrients. The body uses nutrients to enhance the short-term goals at the detriment of the long-term growth. And even here we can see an aspect of exploitation.

Therefore, stunting is not only an indicator of malnutrition of children, but also of exploitation of children. And, while stunting in usually monitored in children younger that 5 years of age, the stunting as a result of exploitation should be monitored in children older that 5 years of age.

[1] WHO Global Nutrition Targets 2025: Stunting Policy Brief. See here.
[2] Kraemer: Making Stunting a Development Indicator in Sight and Life – 30(1)/2016
[3] Kraemer: The Stunting Enigma in Sight and Life – 27(2)/2013
[4] Caine et al: Does gymnastics training inhibit growth of females? in Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine – 2001

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