A sociological study of child malnutrition in rural India

Children at Anganwadi Centre in rural West Bengal

Children are our future. For any nation to develop, it is important to ensure their well-being. However, child malnutrition is widespread in several countries including India. Child malnutrition is the outcome of a complex interaction of different factors. It is time this interaction is identified, problematized and analyzed — so that child malnutrition can hopefully be eradicated. This is what got me interested in my PhD project titled, ‘Culture and Malnutrition: An Analysis of the Socio-Cultural Dimension of Child Malnutrition in Rural India’.

We, graduate research scholars of the IITB-Monash Research Academy, study for a dually-badged PhD from IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich our research experience. The Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavors to strengthen relationships between the two countries.

India is ranked 102 out of 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index 2019. The rate of malnourishment here is abnormally high. Child malnutrition is, without doubt, one of the biggest social problems that the country is facing today.

My project attempts to provide a nuanced understanding of the socio-cultural dimension of child malnutrition in rural India.

Child malnutrition is also one of the biggest health issues the world is facing today. While the importance of socio-cultural factors — for example, gender, religion, caste, family and kinship on matters of dietary practices, childcare, infant health care, and nutritional outcome — has always been known, there is hardly any rigorous research on this in India, especially from an ethnographic perspective. Through my research I aim to gain fresh insights into child malnutrition by engaging with the key cultural aspects of Indian society that have a strong bearing on child health, including malnutrition.

The participants of my ethnographic study are the primary caregivers of children aged between three months and six years. I have used ethnographic techniques like thick fieldwork, participant observation, narrative interviews and focus-group discussion for data collection. The fieldwork was conducted in a village named Bhangar-1 in West Bengal (India). The participants were selected through a combination of random and snowball sampling from the Anganwadi centres. To explore the socio-cultural determinants of child malnutrition, I observed and interviewed caregivers of children for eight months.

So, what has emerged from this research so far?

The narratives of the participants reflect the complexities of the socio-cultural dimension of child malnutrition. The findings of the study suggest that nutritional vulnerability is not simply due to the unavailability, but also due to the accessibility of resources, which involves an interplay of power and hierarchy. The structured norms, values and beliefs of a community influence kinship practices, intra-household decision making, the position of women within the family and their autonomy. These practices significantly influence the mother-child dyad and the nutritional health of the child.

The single factor that motivated me to take up this project was that though there is a vast corpus of research on child malnutrition, it lacks theoretical consolidation. There is a clear need to provide a sociological analysis of child malnutrition.

This study has significant policy implications. It highlights the need to consider the socio-cultural dimensions of the community while framing the social protection programs and policies. It contributes to the understanding of the intra-household contexts where important practices and strategies take place to ensure nutritional well-being of both the mother and the child. Apart from the mother-child dyad, it highlights the need to integrate the wider household and community environment, social structure and institutions related to kinship, family, gender, hierarchical patterns of authority and normative systems of values and beliefs to present a sociological understanding of child malnutrition in rural India.

Prof Murali Sastry, CEO of the IITB-Monash Research Academy, often says, “The Academy was conceived as a unique model for how two leading, globally focused academic organisations can come together in the spirit of collaboration to deliver solutions and outcomes to grand challenges facing industry and society.”

I am confident that this research project will add a significant brick or two in the edifice we are trying to build to eradicate child nutrition.

This story was written by Pragati Dubey. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.

Research scholar: Pragati Dubey, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Research scholar: Culture and Malnutrition: An Analysis of the Socio-Cultural Dimension of Child Malnutrition in Rura

Research scholar: Professor Devanathan Parthasarathy, Assoc Professor Dharma Arunachalam

Research scholar: pragati.dubey@monash.edu