Leaders and parliamentarians from Asian countries will gather in Hanoi today to recognize the vital role of parliamentarian leaders in advancing child nutrition and development. Following the 132nd Inter-Parliamentary (IPU) Assembly, UNICEF and Alive & Thrive will co-host “The Role of Parliamentarians in the Fulfillment of Child’s Rights to Nutrition and Development” conference in collaboration with the National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The conference will open with remarks from Uong Chu Luu, Vice President of Vietnam’s National Assembly. “I am thrilled to join UNICEF and Alive & Thrive today to discuss the important role of parliamentarians in child health and nutrition,” Vice President Luu said. “Strong and dedicated leadership across the South and East Asian regions will help ensure investments in child nutrition and health are prioritized, and that nations have the human capital to remain competitive in today’s growing global economy.”
Many Asian countries have committed to improving child nutrition, a fundamental human right, through the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Yet despite strong investments made by countries, progress on infant and young child nutrition across the region has stalled.
After 25 years of adopting the CRC, at least half of all children remain stunted in six countries in East and South Asia. Stunting, or being too short for one’s age, reduces physical, social, and cognitive capacity throughout childhood and into adulthood. At a young age, stunted children tend to score lower on tests and are less likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school. As adults, they earn 20 percent less than their non-stunted peers.
“Countries across the South and East Asian regions continue to pay high economic costs for not addressing child stunting, including increased health and education costs,” said Fackhuda Zahra Naderi, a member of the Parliament of Afghanistan. “These compounding factors can reduce a country’s GDP by up to 3 percent.”
“We can no longer afford to put the issues of child stunting and undernutrition on the backburner,” said the Irish Ambassador to Vietnam, Damien Cole. “The irish Government has been a strong supporter of the Scaling-Up Nutrition Movement. One of the best opportunities to achieve our vision is to ensure there are strong goals and indicators for food security and nutrition in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.”
Conference presenters will discuss how policymakers and parliamentarians can support families to improve infant and young child feeding practices, particularly breastfeeding. “Breastfeeding is one of the simplest, smartest and most cost-effective ways we have of supporting healthier children and stronger families," Daniel Toole, UNICEF regional director for East Asia and the Pacific, said. "It’s absolutely the best first food for newborns, providing all of the essential nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Breastfed children are sick less often and have higher IQ than their non-breastfed peers.”
UNICEF and the World Health Organization recommend that all mothers breastfeed their children exclusively for the first six months, giving them only breastmilk and no other foods or liquids. At 6 months of age, children should be introduced to appropriate, nutritious, and diverse complementary foods, while continuing to be breastfed to 24 months and beyond.
However, baby food and formula companies have targeted the Asia-Pacific region for years, increasing rates of artificial feeding and impeding the region’s progress towards improved breastfeeding rates. In addition, weak maternity entitlements have contributed to low exclusive breastfeeding rates in the first six months after birth and continued breastfeeding up to 24 months are low or declining.
Parliamentarians can support families by strengthening legislation around the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (BMS Code) and maternity protection. The BMS Code is designed to support optimal infant and young child nutrition by regulating how and where breastmilk substitutes (including baby food and formula) are marketed, and prohibiting all forms of promotion of breastmilk substitutes. Strong maternity protection policies help ensure that mothers can be employed in the formal sector and have the support they need to exclusively breastfeed their child for the first 6 months of life and continue to breastfeed till their children are 24 months of age.
“In 2012, Vietnam extended paid maternity leave to six months and expanded the ban of advertising of breastmilk substitutes for infants from 6 months to 24 months. These landmark decisions have helped ensure that all mothers and families have adequate support to choose the safest and most nourishing methods of feeding their children,” said Tran Van Hang, director of Vietnam’s Committee of Foreign Affairs. “At today’s conference, parliamentarians will come away with strong recommendations and solutions to improve policies supporting child nutrition and development in their countries. Together, we are building a brighter future for our children, and a stronger future for our nations.”