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Nearly half of Sri Lanka’s children below 5 years in poverty and undernourished; Worse situ in Rajapaksa kingdom!

Image courtesy of UNICEF.

About half of Sri Lanka’s children aged below 5 years are in poverty and half the babies are undernourished, the result of the economic destruction which put at risk the country’s most vulnerable population.

At a time when millions can’t spend Rs 2,000 a day for a meal for four, an alarming 33.4% of children below 4 years are multidimensionally poor, and underweight or stunted. About half the babies (up to 11 months) are undernourished. The troubling manifestations of undernutrition mean a dire future awaits.

Sri Lanka’s first study of multidimensional child poverty reveals that based on education, health, standard of living, and child development, and 12 corresponding indicators, 42.2% of children from infant to 5 year-olds, are in poverty. There is no safe drinking water for 32.9% and 24.4% live in a house that is at least 15 minutes away from a bus stop, or at least 30 minutes away from a primary or secondary school. Among the 4-year-old group, 16.4% are deprived of early childhood development.

There are 1.9m 4-year-olds, among whom 943,000 are female, according to Department of Census and Statistics data of 2021. The findings would mean, more than 801,000 children experience multidimensional poverty.

Also, every one in six Sri Lankans — or 3.53 million — is poor. Seniors are among the worst off.

The findings, which help to understand how Sri Lankans are poor and what are they deprived of, are revealed in a report ‘Sri Lanka’s Multidimensional Poverty Index 2019 Results: National and Child Analyses’. This analytical tool was made possible by UNICEF, which brought together the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), the European Union, and the Department of Census and Statistics.

Stunting in children is caused by chronic undernutrition. A stunted child is too short for the age and can suffer severe irreversible physical and cognitive damage. This situation is expected to worsen substantially in Sri Lanka. An underweight child’s weight is low for his or her age. Such a child may be stunted, wasted or both.

During the economic calamity, separate data show that 47,567 children between 6 months and 5 years with severe wasting had been admitted for treatment. Even pre-crisis, 2 in 5 babies had not been fed the minimum acceptable diet.

This new UNICEF study shows that elders above age 65 years old and children aged 5-17 years old are the poorest. Multidimensional poverty among seniors is 17.9%, while the incidence in 5-17 year-olds alone is 16.9%. Many seniors are chronically ill.

The bleak picture that emerges is that children from poor families bear greater risks of being undernourished and their growth and learning are hindered.

Findings indicate that political leaders must give immediate attention to the lack of access to health facilities, schools, clean cooking fuels, and safe drinking water.

Poverty is far worse in provinces — more than eight out of every 10 are poor. In Hambantota, the home turf of the Rajapaksas, deprivation of education, and chronic illness contribute more to multidimensional poverty than in Matale.

This study goes beyond examining ‘monetary poverty’. Under the ‘Sustainable Development Goals Guide to End Child Poverty’, monetary poverty in children is defined as a share of children living in households below the poverty line. In 2019, about 1 million out of 5.9m children in Sri Lanka were in monetary poverty.

The real scale of Sri Lanka’s poverty is visible in UNICEF’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (the national MPI) and the child Multidimensional Poverty Index (child MPI), the first such measure of child poverty connected with the national MPI.

The national MPI has 10 indicators under three dimensions of education, health, and standard of living. The child MPI has these indicators plus a fourth dimension: undernutrition (being underweight or stunted) and early childhood development (deprivations specific to a child’s age, which could prevent healthy physical and cognitive development). The first three dimensions mirror the national MPI.

UNICEF says the child MPI is a pioneering index providing insight into poverty, undernutrition, and early childhood development of children up to 4 years old.

These two indices (with sampling errors) are based on Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2019 data.

UNICEF Sri Lanka Representative Christian Skoog notes: “It is disheartening that more than 4 in 10 children under the age of 5 years are multidimensionally poor, that is, they are being deprived of several factors that are key to their wellbeing, specifically nutrition, care and stimulation.’’

He says multidimensional child poverty is much higher than the national average based on the national MPI, with every 1 out of 6 Sri Lankans living in poverty.

In the child MPI, the early childhood development indicator is defined differently for children of different ages. For example, a five month old infant is deprived in the early childhood development indicator if the baby is not with biological parents, or is left alone, or is looked after by another child below 10 years of age at home for more than an hour.

The national MPI reveals that 65.8% of Sri Lankans do not have access to a safe source of drinking water and 58.4% are deprived of clean cooking fuel. And 38.9% do not have assets (no TV, washing machine, fridge, three-wheeler, agriculture/fishing equipment etc), while 34.3% do not have access to basic facilities, such as the closest bus stop or primary or secondary school.

There are no statistically significant differences between the poverty levels of girls and boys.

By Kapila Bandara  / ST

Key Results of the Report:

National Multidimensional Poverty Index

Approximately one out of every six (16 per cent) people in Sri Lanka are multidimensionally poor.

Estate areas are pockets of poverty requiring policy attention as more than half (51.3 per cent) of all people in these areas are living in poverty.

Rural areas are also a key focus point as more than eight out of every 10 (80.9 per cent) people who are poor live in rural areas.

Poverty levels in districts vary significantly from a low of 3.5 per cent in Colombo to 44.2 per cent in Nuwara Eliya. Even for districts with similar MPI values, high-impact policies must consider the indicator composition of poverty, in order to plan the most cost-effective response.

People aged 65 years and older are the poorest age group in Sri Lanka, with the highest headcount ratio (17.9 per cent) as well as intensity of poverty and MPI.

The deprivations that require immediate policy attention are the lack of access to health facilities and basic facilities, clean cooking fuels, and safe drinking water.
Deprivation patterns – and therefore policy and budgetary responses – vary by district and age.

Using the child MPI more than four out of every 10 (42.2 per cent) children under the age of 5 years are multidimensionally poor.

All children considered poor by the national MPI are concurrently poor by individual level child MPI. In addition, the child MPI adds a fourth dimension comprising deprivations in each child’s nutrition and cognitive development.

One third (33.4 per cent) of children aged 0-4 years old are multidimensionally poor and either underweight or stunted.

One sixth (16.4 per cent) of children aged 0-4 years are multidimensionally poor and deprived in early childhood development.

Nearly half of children 0-11 months and 4 years old are poor, mainly due to undernutrition, and for children who are 4 years old, not being in preschool.

Encouragingly, there are no statistically significant differences between the poverty levels of girls and boys in Sri Lanka.



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