"Women in Southeast Asia eat last and the least [so they give birth to undernourished children]," explained Doris Weismann, author of the Global Hunger Index, released on Friday by the International Food Policy Research Institute, a US-based think-tank.
The index, which measures malnutrition by taking into account the child's physical development and intake of vitamins and minerals, covers 97 developing nations and 22 countries in transition.
However, more children in sub-Saharan Africa were dying because of recurring droughts and the high incidence of diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS, Weismann said.
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), out of every 1,000 babies aged below one in Sub-Saharan Africa, 102 died each year. The 10 worst performers in the index were all African countries; war-damaged Burundi, where more than 40 percent of children aged under five were underweight, topped the list.
Southeast Asia was the only region in which girls were more likely to be underweight than boys, said UNICEF's nutrition report card for 2006. In India, one out of every three adult women was underweight and at risk of delivering low birth-weight babies.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies retard intellectual development, compromise immune systems, cause birth defects and affect the working capacity of adults, Weismann pointed out. Southern African countries lost up to 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product because of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, said Micronutrient Initiative, a Canada-based NGO trying to eliminate vitamin and mineral deficiencies by helping countries develop programmes and set up fortification projects.
Armed conflicts aggravated food insecurity, as combatants frequently used hunger as a weapon by cutting off food supplies, starving opposing population groups into submission and even hijacking food aid intended for civilians, Weismann said. "Most countries that were involved in full-blown wars between 1989 and 2003 scored poorly on the index." Besides Burundi, these included Eritrea, Angola, Ethiopia and Cambodia.
Three Southeast Asian countries - India, Bangladesh and Pakistan - accounted for half the world's underweight children, despite having just 29 percent of the developing world's under-five population, UNICEF reported. Underweight prevalence in Southeast Asia has declined, but not enough to meet the United Nation's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of underweight under-fives by 2015.
According to the UNICEF report card, West and Central Africa - with the highest under-five mortality rates in the world - had managed to reduce the prevalence of underweight children somewhat since 1990, but the gains were insufficient for these countries to reach the MDG target.
There was a lack of political will to tackle hunger, said Weismann, who pointed out that countries like Ghana and Mozambique had made good progress in eradicating hunger.
Only eight African countries - Tunisia, Benin, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Mauritania, Djibouti and Bostwana - were on track to achieve the MDG of halving the number of underweight children, UNICEF commented.
Eastern and Southern Africa had shown no improvement in reducing the proportion of underweight children since 1990, the report card said, with Botswana the only exception. The number of underweight children in the region had actually increased because of declining agricultural productivity, recurring food crises associated with drought and conflict, and rising levels of poverty.
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