In this division, 33 percent of children are underweight while 43 percent are stunted
Samir Das is a minor child, who lives in Doldoli tea garden in Sylhet. He looks like a four-year-old boy though his actual age is seven years. His age is perfect for going to school. But due to slow growth, his parents could not have him admitted in any formal educational institution.
Like Samir's parents, the parents of Ariful Islam are also facing the same problem. Eight-year-old Ariful's physical growth is not normal. Therefore, Ariful, who lives in Tahirpur of Sunamganj, also could not get admission in any school.
Like Samir and Ariful, a huge section of Sylhet's child population is stunted and underweight, according to a report of the Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (2017-18) published on November 30. In the district, 33 percent of children are underweight while 43 percent are stunted.
The National Institute of Population Research and Training (NIPORT) conducted the survey between October 2017 and March 2018 on 20,250 households in 675 areas of the country's 64 districts.
The situation in Sylhet, however, is an anomaly. According to the report, child nutritional status has improved steadily over the past decade in Bangladesh and stands at 31 and 22 percent respectively.
The rate of stunting among children under five declined from 43 percent in 2007 to 31 percent in 2017. In the last three years of the study, stunting declined by 5 percentage points.
The rate in terms of underweight children declined from 41 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2017. In the last three years, the number of underweight children declined by 11 percentage points.
The report notes that 33 percent of children living in rural areas are stunted whereas the problem is 25 percent in urban areas in the country.
Dhaka and Khulna divisions have the lowest underweight and stunting rates, around 19 percent and around 26 percent respectively.
However, the scene in Sylhet is different. Sylhet Civil Surgeon Dr Premanando Mondal told The Business Standard, "Sylhet is considered a rich region as many people of this division have been living abroad and sending remittances. But its affluent people mostly live in urban areas. The situation in the tea gardens and haor areas is different. The poverty rate is very high there. The cultivable land in haor areas remains under water for seven to eight months a year."
Dr Mondal continued, "Almost every year crops are damaged. For that reason, those who inhabit such areas cannot ensure average nutrition needs. Like the haor people, tea garden workers are also suffering from malnutrition. Because of their low income, labourers at the tea gardens do not have the ability to provide nutritious food to their children. The same situation prevails among other poor families in the city and villages of the region."
Dr Khursheed Jahan, former professor at the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science, said, "Children's mental and physical development are disrupted by malnutrition. It in turn affects their classroom performance. A child's immunity is decreased. The most important thing is that a malnourished child grows up as a malnourished adult. For this reason nutrition-related awareness is necessary."
However, public and private initiatives were there to improve the nutritional status of Sylhet, according to Dr Premanando Mondal. Various organisations, including Unicef, Save the Children and UNFPA, were working in this regard, he said.
"Improving nutrition status is a long term process. The results are not immediately visible. It will be seen after 10 years," he added.