The Asian Enigma

By Nachiket Mor

I have just finished reading a very old (circa 1996) and very troubling article written by Ramalingaswami, Jonsson and Rohde entitled: The Asian Enigma.

The article seeks to ascertain why, despite the fact that countries in Sub Saharan Africa are as poor as or poorer than India, the proportion of children that are malnourished in that part of the world are 30% while in our part of the world they are about double that number. They label this phenomenon as the “Asian Enigma” but to me the principal answer they offer up by way of explanation represents an even bigger enigma.

While it is common in most parts of the world, including Sub-Saharan Africa, for women to be subordinated to men, society in South Asia makes demands “on the time and energies of women that are visibly more excessive and unfair” than in any other region of the world. This, and not our poverty, produces our low-birth weight babies, the severe malnourishment of our children and according to the Barker Hypothesis this is also therefore responsible for the fact that we as adults are prone to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes a whole ten years ahead of the rest of the world – this too is an “Asian Enigma”.

How did our civilisation which is so old and so mature and which deifies women, end up in this very unique position? To me this is the biggest and the saddest enigma of them all.

Can this be fixed? The authors argue that while there are shorter-term technical solutions, the key to finding a long term solution is to urgently right this wrong and to focus on the empowerment of women and the “key of keys”, they argue is the education of girls. In addition to being involved with ICTPH and Sughavazhvu I am also Chairman of the Board for CARE India. They have built their entire strategy around the power of women to transform societies (watch their moving “I am Powerful” video) – I now realise even more sharply than I did earlier why for us in South Asia this is such an urgent priority.

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Abraham
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Abraham
6 years 7 months ago

Empowerment of women is the key to a lot of our woes. a healthy women gives rise to healthy children which in turn produces healthy nation as a whole. Child marriages are also partly responsible and in giving focus to education of women and access to food we could see a miracle taking place. The next ten years if is is dedicated to the women of india we will see a marked improvement in the quality of women . children and our nation as a whole .

Dinesh Gopalan
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Dinesh Gopalan
6 years 7 months ago
I am sure the original article you refer has some detailed analyses – but these thoughts come to mind. Traditionally, women have been confined to the home, and men have done most of the work outside – but this differs in the hill regions. There the women do all the work, at home and outside, and the men laze around doing nothing. same is true of the urban poor in a lot of cases. Are there more malnourishment cases in such communities? Are there more girl children who are malnourished ( I am sure there are). there have been studies… Read more »
Nachiket Mor
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6 years 7 months ago
Dear Dinesh, I am not sure I have fully understood the point that you are trying to make. The Asian Enigma refers principally to the differential access of women to adequate nutrition — I am not clear what the differences are in work habits of women in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa so cannot really comment on that impact (though there is apparently some evidence that a “smarter race” Homo neanderthalensis became extinct in part because of inadequate division of labour between males and females relative to the Homo Sapiens). On the links between status of women and early onset… Read more »
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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Syamant and nachiket, rahulanand. rahulanand said: RT @nachiketmor: The Asian Enigma | The ICTPH Blog http://ictph.org.in/blog/?p=256 […]

soumitra
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soumitra
6 years 7 months ago

Education. that is the key. at a very practical level, keeping girls in education also helps delay the age at marriage and hence the first pregnancy

Anurag
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Anurag
6 years 7 months ago
Though I agree that the focus needs to be on women there needs to be a very scientific intervention in their empowerment. A small note about the modern kitchens where women stand for hours cooking and that is really harmful for their backs. There has been a study about how Indian women carry out chores that help thier bodies to cope. Your note on the Indian ‘mature’ society cannot be ignored. There are rural traditions that need carful interventions. The fantastic Charles Eames report comments about the lota. The Indian woman carries water in a certain way that the design… Read more »
Nachiket Mor
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6 years 7 months ago
Dear Anurag, While I agree that there is a lot that we can learn from tradition and rural economies we should not forget that at 1947 our life-expectancy at birth was thirty years! A large proportion of our children (boys and girls) were dying before they reached the age of ten. I agree that there is no room for paternalism in our quest for women’s empowerment which is why education as a long-term strategy seems the most appealing. Women can then make their own choices about which “Ghada” to use for example or whether they would rather have water delivered… Read more »
S Subramanian
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S Subramanian
6 years 7 months ago
It is obvious that socio cultural millieu is the major contributor. There are a large number of native religions in Africa and a large proportion of African population follow native religions. It looks as though these native religions might not be placing emphasis on secondary and tougher role for women. As much as we are proud of our ancient scriptures and heritage, the teachings have been twisted out of shape resulting in a very tough, demanding and demeaning role for women which in turn lead to early marriage, heavy work load, isolation from the kith and kin at an early… Read more »
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[…] As usual I was mesmerized by Dr Mor’s energy and understanding of  Health sector. He prompted me to read an article title ” The Asian Enigma “ which has challenged the way I been thinking of the progress that India has done in the last decade.  Dr Mor’s blog on the article can be accessed here. http://ictph.org.in/blog/?p=256 […]

vandana gopikumar
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6 years 6 months ago
Shocking Nachiket; I always knew there would be a link ; but this is sad, no, the extent ? ! Somehow, in the sheltered environment that we grow up in, we don’t see the rather obvious linkages . Though an interesting phenomenon that I have observed in the rehab trips that I have gone on is that in some really rural, remote areas and amongst some tribes ( Irulas etc) , there is a great sense of equity. So it seems like with progress/ time, some strange inexplicable things have happened that are not entirely logical / rational. We should… Read more »
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