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The Woes Of Indonesia’s Children

According to Flint, Indonesia’s “reasonably high average income conceals a fair amount of underlying inequality.

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Two sick children wait for treatment after being admitTed to a hospital in Agats, Asmat District, after the government dispatched military and medical personnel to the remote region of Papua to combat malnutrition and measles, Indonesia. VOA
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Despite its middle income status, Indonesia is dealing with what experts say are unexpectedly high rates of childhood stunting. Now, its government – starting with the the president – is declaring war on the issue and committing to boost its response to the challenge following a World Bank publication that says 37 percent of Indonesia’s children were stunted in 2013, a rate on par with some far more impoverished nations of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Stunting is the medical condition that the World Health Organization defines as “impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation.”

While Indonesia’s health ministry and other agencies have been battling to address the problem for years, the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has now elevated the issue to be a national priority, making it a point to include it in last year’s Independence Day address.

“Before he mentioned it in the speech, I doubt it has ever been mentioned by a president in Indonesia,” said Claudia Rokx, a lead health specialist at the World Bank and one of the authors of the landmark book released last month.

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“If you’re malnourished during that first thousand days, the likelihood is that you would have suffered from irreversible brain damage,”

First 1,000 days

Health experts emphasize that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital for preventing stunting, requiring adequate breastfeeding and nutrition, stimulation and activity, clean water and sanitation, and timely treatment of conditions like diarrhea and malaria.

With more than one in three Indonesian children being stunted, this means around 9 million children in Southeast Asia’s most populous country are suffering from developmental limitations.

Nusa Tenggara Timur, an impoverished province of eastern Indonesia, has the highest rate of stunting in Indonesia at 52 percent. Fifi Sumanti is a midwife on Komodo Island, known for its famous dragons and home to just 2,000 people. It is arid and most food must be brought in from other islands.

“Mothers here aren’t used to giving their children enough vegetables and fruit. They’re happier to give instant food to the children,” Sumanti told VOA. Hygiene awareness and access to clean water are also major problems, she said.

While the poorest parts of Indonesia suffer the highest rates of stunting, even among the richest proportion of Indonesians stunting is as high as 29 percent.

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Health experts emphasize that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital for preventing stunting. Pixabay

Dr. Brian Sriprahastuti, a senior advisor to the office of the President of Indonesia on the issue of stunting, said the reasons for Indonesia’s stunting problem today go beyond the traditional factors of poverty and limited access to public services. “Now we have another hypothesis that behavior is the main problem of this stunting issue,” Sriprahastuti said.

Sumanti, the midwife, agrees.

“We need to speak with [mothers] more about what stunting is and give greater care from the time mothers are first pregnant until they give birth, until the time the child is three years old,” she said.

“If you’re malnourished during that first thousand days, the likelihood is that you would have suffered from irreversible brain damage,” said Simon Flint, a donor with the Asian Philanthropy Circle, a Singapore-based charity. It is thus, Flint said, “critically important” to prevent stunting to ensure “any intervention or expenditure on education,” adding it “could be so much more effective later on in a person’s life.”His group plans to launch a $10 million 1000 Days Fund by this March to support anti-stunting programs in Indonesia.

A new commitment

In the forward to the World Bank publication, the Indonesian president called current stunting rates “unacceptable” and pledged to prevent two million children from being stunted by 2021. “Eliminating stunting is therefore a main priority for our Government,” he wrote. “The Government is fully committed to do whatever it may take to achieve this goal.

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“I doubt it has ever been mentioned by a president in Indonesia,” said Claudia Rokx, a lead health specialist at the World Bank. Pixabay

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, said the government is investing in what he said are “evidence-based interventions” across 100 districts, to be expanded to the country’s 541 districts by 2021. “This initiative marks a decisive step up in the ambitions of the world’s fourth-most populous nation to tackle stunting as part of its commitment to sustained, inclusive economic growth,” he wrote.

According to Flint, Indonesia’s “reasonably high average income conceals a fair amount of underlying inequality. Just for example, according to government figures, in 2016 around 30 million Indonesians were still living on less than a dollar a day. There’s obviously a huge problem of inequality and lack of access among the poorest people.”

Sriprahastuti of the President’s Office said that the government was adopting a human rights-based approach. “For all pregnant women in Indonesia, everywhere, for all children under two, everywhere, we have to support them.”

Also Read: A Majority of Children Die Due to lack of Basic Healthcare Facilities: UN

“They know they have a huge problem, they’ve recognized it now. They are ready to do something about it. They’ve thrown a lot of money into it. They have the highest-level commitment, and they know it can be done in Indonesia as well,” said Rokx.

“Everything is in place for them to do it well, they just have to coordinate better, be persistent and make sure that these kids get the best start in life they can get.” (VOA)

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Pakistan Reacts Sharply To U.S. Religious Freedom Charges

China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are also included in the U.S. list of countries accused

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A Pakistani nun holds a candle during a vigil for victims of a deadly suicide bombing in a park, March 28, 2016, in Lahore. VOA

Pakistan is denouncing a U.S. decision to place it on a list of countries Washington says are the worst offenders of religious freedom.

“Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country how to protect the rights of its minorities… there are serious questions on the credentials and impartiality of the self proclaimed jury involved in this unwarranted exercise,” the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday in a strongly-worded statement.

The reaction comes a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his designation of “countries of particular concern” that allegedly have engaged in or tolerated ”systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Freedom Violations

The countries on the blacklist are exposed to punitive sanctions, but Pompeo waived them for Pakistan, citing U.S. national interests.

Pakistan had until now been on a U.S. watch list for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated” severe violations of religious freedom.

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Pakistani volunteers collect debris from an Ahmadi mosque demolished by an angry mob, in the eastern city of Sialkot. VOA

While rebuking Tuesday’s U.S. pronouncement as “unilateral and politically motivated,” the Pakistani Foreign Ministry noted Pakistan is “a multi-religious and pluralistic society” of more than 200 million people, mostly Muslims.

“Around four percent of our total population comprises citizens belonging to Christian, Hindu, Buddhists and Sikh faiths. Ensuring equal treatment of minorities and their enjoyment of human rights without any discrimination is the cardinal principle of the Constitution of Pakistan,” it said.

Ahmadis most persecuted community

The statement did not mention the Ahmadi sect, which critics say is the most persecuted minority in Pakistan. The constitution bars the community from “posing as Muslims” and from calling their worship places “mosques.”

U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback while defending downgrading of Pakistan reiterated Tuesday the challenges facing the Ahmadi community.

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Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, speaks to reporters at the State Department in Washington. VOA

“The Pakistani government criminalizes the identification of Ahmadis as Muslims, and then also — and this one has really been difficult and troubling for a lot of people — the government often fails to hold accountable perpetrators of killings and violence against members of religious minorities targeted on account of their religious beliefs or affiliations,” said Brownback.

Blasphemy laws

He cited, among other things, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as a cause for the downgrade of the country’s religious freedom ranking. The laws prescribe the death penalty for those found guilty.

Rights groups have long complained Islamist groups misuse the law to intimidate minorities in the country.

Insulting Islam or its prophet is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan where mere allegations have led to mob lynchings. A former provincial governor, a federal minister, judges and lawyers are among those assassinated in Pakistan by extremists merely for calling for reform of the blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse or for hearing cases and defending alleged blasphemers.

Asia Bibi

In a historic judgement this past October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been on death row for eight years after being convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. The women denied the charges from the outset as an outcome of a local feud and the country’s highest court cited lack of evidence in overturning her conviction by a lower court.

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Radical Islamists rally to condemn a Supreme Court decision that acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who spent eight years on death row accused of blasphemy, in Karachi, Pakistan. VOA

Bibi and her family have been in hiding since her release. Her lawyer fled Pakistan shortly after the landmark court ruling announced on October 31, saying his life was in danger.

Bibi is awaiting a rehearing of her case by the Supreme Court and is residing in a safe place under government protection, say Pakistani officials.

Pakistan also arrested hundreds of Islamist activists and their leaders last month for staging days of mass violent protests to denounce the court for freeing Bibi.

Also Read: Muslims in Malaysia Rally In Kuala Lumpur To Keep Status

The government has charged the detainees with treason and terrorism and officials have vowed to put them on trial in special courts.

“It’s our hope that they will, the new leadership in Pakistan, will work to improve the situation. There was some encouraging signs seen recently on how they’ve handled some of the recent protesting against the blasphemy laws, and we continue to watch very carefully what’s happening to Asia Bibi,” said Brownback.

China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are also included in the U.S. list of countries accused of committing severe violations of religious freedom. (VOA)