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You Are What You Eat: Mapping Nutrition Perceptions In India’s Youth

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This post is part of a campaign by YKA in collaboration with Nutrition International to raise awareness on key adolescent nutrition issues, its bearings on our lives and how COVID-19 has impacted adolescents' health and nutrition. You can participate in the campaign by taking the #YouAreWhatYouEat survey!

By Jigyasa Nawani, Ameet Babre, Mini Varghese

A survey among urban Indian youth shows the imperative need for nutrition resiliency to combat the pandemic now and to be prepared for the future.

We have been combating COVID-19 for over a year and we are yet to see its back. One thing that the world has realized is that immunity is the key to good health. What’s the foundation for a strong immune system? Nutrition.

Good nutrition – access to essential micronutrients critical for growth and development – is something that India has been struggling with for a long time.

Representational image.

The latest National Family and Health Survey (NFHS-5) showed there is still a long way to go, especially in the area of anaemia and nutrition. Several states either had meagre improvements or sustained reversals on child malnutrition indicators such as stunting, wasting and underweight. In most states and union territories of India, more than half the children and women are anaemic. Despite the increase in the availability of iron supplementation, especially for pregnant women, levels of anaemia continue to increase.

#YouAreWhatYouEat Survey Results

As part of the pressing need to address this urgent problem, Nutrition International, along with Youth Ki Awaaz, conducted a survey in November 2020 to map perceptions of Indian youth about nutrition and anaemia, and to assess the impact of the pandemic on their access to health and nutrition services. The #YouAreWhatYouEat survey reached 2,900 respondents online. Its key findings included the following:

  • One-third of the respondents had limited knowledge about anaemia, while 11% had no knowledge about it.
  • 69% of respondents were unaware that dizziness, cold feet and/or hands, and frequent headaches are symptoms of anaemia, and were only aware of fatigue and weakness as related symptoms.
  • 51% of respondents felt COVID-19 had an impact on their health conditions and emotional well-being.
  • 32% reported the inability to go to the market to buy nutritious food items due to the pandemic, while 22% reported unavailability of these items.
  • 15% reported the inability to go to the market to buy medicines/supplements due to the pandemic, while 10% reported unavailability of these essentials.

India has had a nationwide program focused on anaemia control for over 30 years. Despite this, nearly 53% of women (15-49 years), 59% of children (6-59 months) and 50% of pregnant women are anaemic. Nutrition International supports anaemia prevention by working with the government at the national and state levels to increase access, coverage and consumption of iron and folic acid (IFA) supplement for adolescents girls, pregnant women and lactating women. However, the survey highlighted that knowledge about anaemia’s consequences and prevention tactics among youth remains limited. Further, access to health and nutrition services has worsened during the pandemic.

Representational image.

Gender And Nutrition

While women in India are still largely in charge of the family kitchen − directly making them the supervisor of their family’s nutrition − when it comes to intake of proper diet, girls and women eat last and least in the family.

They are twice as likely to suffer from malnutrition as compared to boys and men. The key to bridging these gender gaps is to ensure the participation of men, especially those in influential positions or who will become community leaders. Educating young men on issues of nutrition and health early on, as well as overcoming stereotypes around who is the ‘provider,’ will help shape how a generation of youth perceive gender, which in turn has great potential to influence behaviour.

Survey Recommendations

There is a dire need to strengthen the supply chain, with a focus on delivering preventive nutrition and health services. This requires collaboration across multiple sectors and stakeholders, including the government, health agencies at the national, state and local level, civil society organizations, and the private sector.

Findings from the survey brought to light structural gaps that impact what food makes it on our plate. This includes a lack of awareness and understanding of nutrition, diverse socio-economic stratifications, existing problems in our food systems, and restricted access to nutrition and healthcare. These gaps make a strong case for the critical need for investing in preventive health and nutrition. We cannot wait for treatment. The right nutrition at the right time can mean the difference between life and death for the most vulnerable, especially women and children. That nutrition can’t wait, can’t be emphasized enough.

With vaccinations ramping up across the country, there is hope in the midst of the pandemic. However, the ‘new normal’ needs to be rebuilt bridging the systemic gaps that came to light during the pandemic and keeping India’s youth top of mind. COVID-19 highlighted the importance of nutrition to one’s health and development. We need to support our youth to make healthy decisions now that will have lasting impacts on their futures.

The survey was conducted online among youth living in urban or close-to urban areas and hence the findings are representative of such audiences with access to online modes of communication. Nutrition International is conducting a similar survey among rural adolescents residing in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

 About the authors: The authors work with Nutrition International. Jigyasa Nawani is the Regional Communication Officer, Asia, Ameet Babre is the National Program Manager, India, and Mini Varghese is the Country Director, India.

This article was first published on Nutrition International’s website

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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