Stunted children among urban poor at crisis level, Unicef report says

Lead researcher and chief economist of DM Analytics, Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid speaks during his presentation of the report ‘Children Without : A study of urban child poverty and deprivation in low cost flats in Kuala Lumpur’ on February 26, 2018. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Lead researcher and chief economist of DM Analytics, Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid speaks during his presentation of the report ‘Children Without : A study of urban child poverty and deprivation in low cost flats in Kuala Lumpur’ on February 26, 2018. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 — A Unicef report has found higher levels of poverty and malnutrition among children living in low-cost housing in Kuala Lumpur compared to the national average.

The study by the United Nations agency titled “Children Without: A study of urban child poverty and deprivation in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur” found almost all children, or 99.7 per cent, living in low-cost flats in the capital city lived in relative poverty, while seven per cent lived in absolute poverty. The percentage of those suffering from problems linked to malnutrition was said to be alarming.

“Urban child poverty and deprivation in low-cost flats highlights how poverty impairs the opportunities of children living in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur to early education and makes them more vulnerable to malnourishment,” Unicef said in a statement released together with the report today.

Malnourished children are at risk of stunted growth, which could severely impair cognitive development and make them slower at learning. This in turn reduces their social mobility and keeps them in poverty, a cycle that could potentially repeat itself in the absence of intervention.

The study, which surveyed almost 1,000 households with children below 18 years of age in their care and reside in public flats, showed the number of children that suffer from stunted growth has coincided with the increased number of urban poor households, averaging one out of three.

At the national level, the rate of stunted growth among children stood at 22 per cent in the capital city, while it was 20.7 per cent at the national level in 2016. The rate of stunted growth among children living in public flats alone is 22 per cent, which was higher than the national average of 20.7 per cent and of the capital city at 11 per cent.

“If it has reached above 20 per cent it should be declared a crisis,” Muhammed Abdul Khalid, the study’s chief researcher and director of DM Analytics, said at the presentation of the report.

“It is a basic issue of affordability and access,” Muhammed continued. Poor parents often cannot afford quality and healthy food, which tends to be expensive even as prices for basic food items are regulated.

“We sent one of the interns to get an apple in one of the PPR to buy an apple. It wasn’t there,” he said.

“But it was easy to get junk food...in fact one of the flats the bus stops right in front of a junk food store,” he added.

Consequentially, obesity has become a huge problem — the survey found 23 per cent of the children in these flats to be either overweight or obese, which is six times higher than the entire city, which averaged at just six per cent.

And the number of underfed children was equally worrying — 15 per cent of those below the age of five were found to be underweight, almost two times higher compared to the KL average (8 per cent).

The study again highlighted the problem that economists and social activists have long raised: that official poverty indicators are obsolete since it only measures poverty in absolute terms.

“These indicators don’t cover whether the children are undernourished, which should actually be an indicator...there is a need to make them (indicators) multidimensional,” Muhammed said.

The government has yet to develop an urban poverty index but instead applies a blanket index to measure poverty in both urban and rural areas, despite the major differences of variables influencing the conditions of the two locations.

Problems with urban poverty also tend to be more complex but are usually hidden since official indicators exclude the qualitative aspects of households’ well-being.

“Children in low-cost flats live in Kuala Lumpur, within easy proximity to amenities; yet, have less access to nutritious food, don’t go to pre-school, live in perceived unsafe areas and have less opportunity to learn and play than most other children in Malaysia,” Marianne Clark-Hattingh, Unicef representative in Malaysia, said in a statement.

“The reality is: poor children are among us but they often remain unseen. It’s clearly a data blind spot,” she added

Clark-Hattingh said the study provided evidence to support targeted policies and interventions. Muhammed said a RM200 monthly aid to poor mothers with children aged below two could make a huge difference.

“Studies have shown that the most important phase of the child is the first 1,000 days. This is when they need help, not when they are in school you give milk,” he said.

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