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Child malnutrition: how did boys and girls fare in the past decade?

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Child Nutrition - young child eating food

Image credit: Pierre Holtz, UNICEF

Globally, girls are less likely to attend school, have secure jobs, or hold public office. But by most measures, they have an advantage in one area: malnutrition.

Malnutrition rates for all children under five years of age in developing countries declined from 26 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2010. But measured across broad income and regional groups, girls either have lower prevalence rates or are on par with the boys.

How is malnutrition measured? For the World Bank, it’s the percentage of children under five who’s weight or height is more than two standard deviations below the corresponding median of the NCHS/WHO international reference population.

Regional and National Improvements

So, with the exception of South Asia, where boys and girls suffer equally, regionally, girls have maintained the advantage in malnutrition over the past decade:

This trend continues down to the national level, where data show lower prevalence levels of malnutrition for girls and continued improvements over time:

Success not uniform within countries

But girls are not uniformly advantaged. Overall conditions for girls have not improved much in many low-income countries or the poorer parts of more developed nations.

Girls in Bangladesh in certain socio-economic quintiles are more likely to be malnourished than boys, although both sexes in poor households are clearly disadvantaged:

Source: Gwatkin and others: "Socio-Economic Differences in Health, Nutrition, and Population in Bangladesh."

And data from oblasts and two autonomous regions within the Russian Federation confirm the disadvantage that girls have compared with boys in some parts of the country:

Source: "WHO Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition"

Child malnutrition is the result of a combination of factors:

  • Lack of food, both in terms of quantity and quality;
  • Inadequate water, sanitation, and health services; and
  • Suboptimal care and feeding practices.

Targeted interventions to improve access to basic requirements and services remain overriding priorities for reducing, and ultimately eliminating, childhood malnutrition for boys and girls in a comprehensive, equitable, and sustainable manner. But cultural barriers, including discriminatory practices and attitudes that favour boys over girls, also need to be actively identified and tackled.

The Millennium Development Goals have focused attention on gender inequalities that put many women at a disadvantage. The data show girls are generally doing better than boys on malnutrition and that overall, children are less likely to be malnourished.

We haven’t yet met the MDG targets, but these data still show the last 10 years have brought significant improvements in children’s lives.

Note: all the data behind the charts and tables in this article can be accessed here.

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