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The heavyweight girls of Manipur

When food is scarce in many parts of rural India, girls are fed less than their brothers. But in the north-eastern region it's a different story.

Tucked away near the Himalayas in the north-eastern corner of India is the state of Manipur. Hitting the national media mostly for its separatist movements, the remote area suffers its share of poverty and hardship.

Struggling to feed the family is a fact of life for many in Manipur and the six other states in the region. Undernourishment in children as a whole is higher than the national average. But there is some evidence to suggest that when mothers enjoy greater equality, their daughters will stand a chance of better health.

Dr L Ladu Singh at the International Institute for Population Science in Mumbai is one of a team of researchers who studied the weight of 2,469 children aged under three in Manipur and six other north-eastern states. They discovered that, on average, infant girls weighed more than boys the same age.

The research team was intrigued by this finding in a country where girls are often discriminated against. In other areas of India, especially in rural parts of northern states, discrimination against the girl child starts at birth, and it can lead to denial of food, care and education, as well as practices such as female infanticide.

Dr Ladu Singh believes a clue to the small weight advantage enjoyed by these north-eastern girls lies in the social status of their mothers.

"Possible reasons for the well-being of the female child in the north-east could be late age at marriage of the mother, lesser number of children, good traditional feeding practices and greater literacy," he explained.

Manipur lies close to the border with Myanmar. Here the female literacy rate is higher than the national average – 60.5 per cent according to the 2001 census, compared to the national figure of 53.7 per cent. Its women-run market is said to be the largest of its kind in South Asia and women's groups in the state are renowned for their social activism.

In their study published in the Asia-Pacific Population Journal, Dr Ladu Singh and his co-researchers conclude that the education of mothers is the single most important factor in determining whether children are well-nourished. By contrast, they claim the father's background seems to have little impact.

At seven months old, Jelly is one of the more recent arrivals in the village of Ningombam Leikai in rural Manipur. She is already eating the same rice, fish and vegetables that are cooked for the entire family. This is in addition to breast milk and supplementary cereals.

"She'll eat anything – bananas, biscuits, roasted puffed rice..," said her 25-year-old mother Olivia, a housewife from the Hindu Meitei tribes who live in the plains of Manipur. She beamed as she fed her daughter dollops of sticky, slightly salty rice. Rice, the staple diet, is the first solid food to be introduced among the Meiteis.

Jelly, it appears, is not being fed more than the boys in her village. Rather, in the absence of gender discrimination, girls and boys in Manipur are being fed the same amount.

"How can the same hand give more to one mouth and less to the other?" asked Ibemcha of Thanga Ngaram village. Ibemcha has a son and two daughters.

Manipur's health minister D K Korunthang echoed this view: "Why should we feed our daughter less? Boy or girl, they are our children. Why should we discriminate? In fact, among the hill tribes, we are happy when a daughter is born, for she brings wealth. At her marriage we'll get mithuns (large South-East Asian wild oxen) and so many other things. Having a son means more expenses," he laughed.

Manipur is not free of gender bias. Some Meiteis admit they would prefer sons.

Forty-two-year-old Angoubi, a government employee in Imphal, waited 20 years hoping for a son to carry the family name. After nine daughters, she gave up.

What's more, while it is true that women enjoy a relatively high social status in India's north-east, they also do most of the work in the fields and carry out household chores. Many suffer exhaustion, leaving them depleted of nutrients.

Based on their belief that the status of mothers holds the key to children's nutrition, Dr Ladu Singh and his fellow researchers advise that if communities want well-nourished children, they should find ways for women to do less onerous work. They argue it is now "imperative to bring about a change in the occupational practices of the region" to improve the nutrition of mothers and also that of the next generation.

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