Analyzing women’s (mal)nourishment in Sikkim

Shelly Le

Indian food is delicious, there’s simply no argument against it. Naan, dal (lentils), rice, paneer (cheese with the consistency of tofu), chana (chickpeas), and chapatti (flatbread) are all yummy and nutritious in varied quantities. Yet in spite of India’s rich food culture, the percentage of malnourished individuals living in India remains astonishingly high — nearly half of Indian children are considered malnourished.

As a part of my studies with SIT, I am required to design and carry out a month long research project that pertains to sustainable development and social change in India. In a country with a population of over 1 billion individuals living in 28 different states with varied cultures and environments, choosing only one topic to study seems difficult right? Well, you’re exactly right. Though throughout this semester, I’ve been increasingly drawn towards gender inequality in India and implications it has on women of different social and economic classes. What perfect way of understanding gender value differences than through the lens of one of India’s largest problems?

For my project, I plan to research women’s malnutrition in India, specifically researching factors that affect women’s nutritional status in India. These factors may include educational level, nutritional diet, role in the household, age, income, and relationship with spouse and children among others. I plan to use the Indian state of Sikkim (borders Tibetan territory and Nepal), which has the lowest rate of malnutrition, as a case study. Perhaps finding what contributes to positive nourishment levels can isolate what may lead to negative nourishment levels in India. Below is a shortened version of my abstract:

Chronic Energy Deficiency (CED) rates, commonly an indicator of malnourishment, in women (indicated by a body mass index lower than 18.5) living in the Indian state of Sikkim have been measured at 11.47 percent, while other Indian states, have much higher CED rates, with the worst being Madhya Pradesh at 41.7 percent. Different vitamins and minerals that can affect these CED rates are essential to a nutritional diet and can be found in a variety of different food, however, access to these foods are often determined by a series of social, political, and economic factors. This study seeks to examine why Sikkim has a significantly lower rate of malnutrition in women than other states. Specifically, it will investigate the general nutrition status of women in Sikkim and analyze what factors affect the nutrition status of women in India… I hope to isolate my study by, first, conducting my research in one or a series of villages with identified malnourished or nourished individuals in Sikkim, and second, with individuals working in government social welfare programs such as Aganwadis and ASHA workers. By using a variety of qualitative research methods such as in-depth interviews, participant observation, and focus groups, this study will analyze what factors affect nutrition status in Indian women and the potential impact of government programs on nutrition.

Last week, during my workshop in Dharamashala, a founder of JAGORI, a women’s empowerment  organization, told me that “Every issue is a woman’s issue.” Poor nourishment is a huge issue in India, but appears to affect women in uniquely different ways than how it affects men or children.

Photo courtesy of the wonderful Martha Snow
Photo courtesy of the wonderful Martha Snow

I leave Jaipur for Sikkim early Saturday morning and will be away from the Pink City for about a month — wish me luck!

For more posts and pictures of my semester abroad in India with the SIT program, check out my personal blog here.