Sizing up the ‘short’ Pinoys

Did you know that Filipino shortness is not a racial or a genetic trait? It is true. Filipinos are short because of the impact of poverty and malnutrition on generations of Filipino children. Populations grow in height, and they can grow quickly when stable growing economies address and reduce poverty and improve nutrition for children. But when poverty is pervasive and access to food limited, populations will stay short and can actually shrink.

Did you know that the average height of Singaporean men is 5’7, versus slightly less than 5’4 for Filipino men? Singaporeans are not genetically taller than Filipinos, yet the average height of men in Singapore has increased by more than an inch in the last 10 years. The Philippine population is currently tied for the second shortest in Southeast Asia with Vietnam, and just ahead of Indonesia. All the other Asean countries have taller populations.

Why are Filipinos short? In the Philippines, 30 percent of all children under the age of 5 are stunted or short for their age, which is an improvement from any previous time in its history. Regardless, hundreds of years of widespread poverty and malnutrition have led to high levels of childhood stunting. Being stunted means that a child has been chronically malnourished during the critical growth period, the first 1,000 days of life: from conception through the second birthday.

To be a stunted child means that you will not achieve your physical growth potential, but more importantly, you will not achieve your cognitive potential.

We know that poverty creates the conditions leading to stunting in children, but stunting keeps children in poverty for their entire lives.

There are 3.6 million stunted children in the Philippines today-the ninth highest number of any country in the world. There are many sub-Saharan African countries that have lower percentages of stunted children than the Philippines. In fact, Mindanao has 40 percent childhood stunting, which is the average for all of sub-Saharan Africa. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is the region with the highest level of stunting in the entire country: 63 percent of all children. Almost two-thirds of all children in the ARMM are stunted, which is equal to stunting in Ethiopia. This is not a theoretical problem; this is a nutritional emergency.

Today, 1.5 million Filipino children will wake up in the morning and go to bed at night without having anything to eat the entire day.

Today, 2.7 million Filipino children will miss a meal because the family didn’t have enough money for three meals.

Almost half of all preventable child deaths (approximately 27,000 per year) in the Philippines have malnutrition as the underlying cause, yet this is never mentioned on any death certificate.

A recent Save the Children Philippines report, titled Sizing Up the Stunting and Malnutrition Problem in the Philippines, documents why height matters. The report finds that height is a proxy indicator of how well the Philippines is doing as a society to reduce childhood poverty and improve access to nutrition. If the Philippines is to progress economically, we must not leave the poorest children behind.

A minimum wage earner in Metro Manila spends P151 to feed a family of five per day, and yet approximately P459 a day is needed to cover three daily meals that will ensure them a balanced diet. For most workers making minimum wage in Metro Manila, it is nearly impossible to keep a family of five well-nourished.

With the upcoming elections, we need strong political will and public awareness to ensure that no child dies or suffers from hunger and malnutrition. The proposed First 1,000 Days Act pending at the health committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives aims to address this concern. There is broad civil-society support for the immediate passage of this bill that will tackle undernutrition among children aged two years and below, and nursing mothers, by scaling up the provision of nutrition supplements, vaccinations and checkups, and promotion of exclusive breastfeeding, maternal nutrition and appropriate complementary feeding.

To date we have not heard of a clear agenda among candidates addressing the prevalence of malnutrition. We hope the candidates will declare their proposed solutions to childhood stunting and finally put an end to intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Candidates, please make a stand that as president you will support the proposed First 1,000 Days Act and prioritize reducing stunting and improving nutrition nationwide. All children have the right to fair and equal access to nutritious food, and this is something that we should expect from any future administration.

It is time to rethink Filipino shortness.