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Why do boys get all the milk?

By Anumeha Yadav

As in so many families, the Kumhars who live in a Jaipur slum take their two daughters to the construction site where they work every day. But their son goes to a private school, and is assured a glass of milk a day. The disparities and biases that creep into the distribution of food within the family have long-term impacts on the health and wellbeing of women and girls. But the Food Security Act does not address them

Commenting in a prominent national daily on the results of a recent survey on child under-nutrition done in 100 districts, and the difference that parity between the genders in nutrition could make, academics S V Subramanian and Malavika Subramanian write: "Stunting is particularly reflective of nutritional circumstances in the first three years of life."

However, the debates around the National Food Security Bill have revolved around who will be in the general or priority category; the quantity of entitlements; or whether it should be in the form of cash or foodgrain. The question that gets lost in the debate is this: Who gets to eat what within the household? The disparities and biases that creep into the distribution of food within the family cannot be wished away given their long-term impacts on the health and wellbeing of society in general, and women and girls in particular.

Sarita Kumhar, a construction worker, with her children Neha, Pooja and Deepak. Deepak goes to school; the girls go to the site with their mother

To understand this phenomenon a little better, let us visit the Kumhar household in Parvati Nagar Kachchi Basti, a Jaipur slum. The young mother of the household, Sarita Kumhar, 26, is a construction worker as is her husband. Kumhar earns Rs 200 a day -- much less than her husband's wage of Rs 250. More than the quantum of wages, she says the problem is the temporary nature of their work. She takes her two little daughters, aged seven and five, with her to the site where she works. Sarita explains: "My husband and I come back only at 6 pm. The anganwadi closes in the afternoon. Whom can I leave them here with," she asks. Her nine-year-old son meanwhile goes to a private school and is looked after by his maternal grandmother.

But what about her daughters? They just have to make do with what they get. To make matters worse, the elder of the two, Pooja, suffered an attack of polio four years ago, and Sarita says she and her husband have tried everything to treat it, even borrowing Rs 50,000 to meet the endless medical bills over the last four years. But today they have little hope that their daughter will be able to walk properly. Debt and minimum wages have meant that food for the family remains basic. Kumhar leaves for work by 8 am with her husband and daughters. From 8.30 am until 5 pm -- which sometimes stretches to six in the evening -- she and her husband mix cement and carry sand without stopping, apart from an hour's break in the afternoon. For lunch, the family shares a few rotis and a seasonal vegetable that Kumhar has cooked and packed before leaving for work. The mother's one consolation is this: "At least one of my children -- my son -- gets properly taken care of. My mother makes sure he gets milk every day."

Biases in food distribution over the years have a direct impact on physical development. Sapna Berva is 14, but could easily pass off for someone half her age. The oldest among five siblings -- four sisters and a brother -- Berva is less than five feet tall and is clearly underweight. Her father works as a helper in a small restaurant in the southern edge of Jaipur, Rajasthan's capital. Her mother is a peon at a private school.

Arti Devi, a domestic worker, sends all her children to the same school and makes sure they eat the same food

Their economic means are limited and that is how Berva explains family decisions. "There is not enough milk for everyone so only Chetan gets it -- twice a day," she says, referring to her younger brother who is also the only one to attend private school. But going to a more affordable government school in the neighbourhood -- although one with poor infrastructure -- has brought some benefits to Berva and her three sisters. She is, in fact, quite enthusiastic about the midday meal she gets in her school. "We have a parantha and tea before leaving home in the morning, but in school they serve a full meal -- roti, sabzi, dal, sometimes even fruit."

Dapu Mehra, 32, a domestic worker who earns Rs 130 a day, has made similar compromises when it comes to distributing food within their seven-member household. Of her three daughters and two sons, only her 14-year-old son, the oldest, gets to attend private school. He and his younger brother who is five are also the ones to drink milk every day; there is none for their sisters who are 12 and 10 years old. "I breastfeed two-year-old Urmila so she gets some milk, but there is not enough money to buy other nutritious food," says Mehra, referring to her youngest child who has been diagnosed with a vision defect in one eye.

Women in families that are even slightly better-off financially say they try to treat their children equally. Take Arti Devi, a domestic worker. "My children go to the same school and eat the same fruit, vegetable, milk and whatever else we can buy," she says proudly. She and her husband, a mason, manage to earn Rs 10,000 a month and live in a concrete house they built with a loan last year. They hold an above-the-poverty-line (APL) ration card.

Intra-household disparities in food distribution are hard to track and document. The prevailing disparity makes universal access with special emphasis on nutrition for women and for the girl-child even more essential. Dipa Sinha, a member of the Right to Food Campaign, puts it this way: "There are no recent studies done on what exactly is going on within the home, but these disparities reflect in the results of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). The NFHS shows that cereal consumption between men and women is usually at par but there are significant differences in the consumption of things like milk."

The current National Food Security Bill provides benefits for pregnant and lactating women. It tries to ensure women's access to food through features such as mandating that ration cards be issued in the name of women who are above 18 years of age in the family. But there is mounting concern that the Bill fails to address the nutrition crisis in its entirety.

Ashok Khandelwal, a labour activist working with the Right to Food Campaign in Rajasthan, says: "The Bill is silent on nutrition for adolescent girls. Yes, the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) provides for midday meals, and so on. But what about girls who have dropped out of school? The government launched the Sabla scheme for adolescent girls in 200 districts last year, but why only a scheme? Why not provide it as a right by making this part of the Act?"

These are important questions that will not go away. If the idea of nutrition for all has to have meaning, then it's time to also bring intra-family biases in food distribution on to the policy table.

(Anumeha Yadav is presently the Jharkhand correspondent of The Hindu)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012