Bangladesh faces high poverty and undernutrition rates, aggravated by frequent natural disasters and high population density. The proportion of the population living under the poverty line came down from 49 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2010 as a result of consistent economic and remittance growth (Household Income and Expenditure Survey HIES 2010). However, due to high overall population, the absolute number of people living in poverty remains high, with 48 million people living below the poverty line (of whom 27 million are below the lower poverty line) and high levels of inequality persisting. Updated poverty figures will be available when the 2015 HIES has been completed and published.
Despite important economic progress and reaching lower middle-income status in 2015, the country remains highly food insecure with roughly a quarter of the population not having regular access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Bangladesh is ranked 142 of 187 countries on the 2014 Human Development Index and 57 among 120 developing and transitioning countries on the 2014 Global Hunger Index. Low dietary diversity is a persistent problem in Bangladesh and showed no significant change across all income groups even as the country experienced a significant decline in poverty (World Bank: Assessing a Decade of Progress in Reducing Poverty, 2000-2010). Achieving gender equality also remains a challenge as significant disparities persist in health, education and income.
The high prevalence of child marriage and undernutrition in mothers and adolescent girls contributes to the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition. Chronic undernutrition, or stunting, is widespread, affecting an estimated 6-7 million children (41 percent) below 5 years of age (Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey BDHS 2011; HIES 2010). These girls and boys are unable to develop to their full physical and mental potential, effects that last a lifetime.
A staggering 16 percent of children under the age of 5 are acutely undernourished, and every fourth woman of reproductive age is too thin for her height. About one third of adolescent girls in Bangladesh suffer from anemia and micronutrient deficiency (BDHS 2011). Moreover, with more than two in three girls married before the age of 18, the risk of early pregnancy and giving birth to an underweight baby is very high. Currently, more than one in five newborns have a low birth weight.
Poverty and undernutrition hinder children’s access to education and ability to learn, and the lack of education has a significant impact on the nutrition status of the next generation. Children of mothers with no education are more than twice as likely to be stunted (51 percent) as are children of mothers who have completed secondary and higher education (23 percent).
While Bangladesh has made encouraging progress in terms of school enrolment and achieved gender parity in primary and secondary education, major problems remain. An estimated 3.3 of 20 million children of primary school age remain out of school, and only eight in ten children that start grade 1 complete grade 5. Children from ultra-poor households are overrepresented in statistics on primary education dropout.
Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world with cyclones, floods, saltwater intrusion, river erosion and drought expected to increase in severity due to the effects of climate change. Coping strategies adopted by the poor such as reducing food intake, withdrawing children from school and selling productive assets increase the vulnerability of low-income households and worsen people’s prospects to escape the poverty cycle.
Despite these numerous challenges, WFP is able to draw on 41 years of operations in the country to continue supporting the Government’s plans and ambitions. WFP works closely with the Government and local as well as international NGOs to improve the food security, nutritional well-being and livelihoods of the poorest of the poor. WFP also supports communities vulnerable to the impacts of disasters and climate change, with a focus on building community and household preparedness as well as resilience through innovative programmes.