NGOs in Bangladesh are pushing for a constitutional amendment to guarantee the legal right to access food, or a food security “framework law” that will hold the state liable for any scarcity.
Despite the government laying out its commitment in 2012 to food security “for all people of the country at all times” at least 31 percent of the population still lack nutritious life-sustaining food.
According to the most recently published National Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) from 2011, 40 percent of children are too short for their age (known medically as “stunting”), a harbinger of lifelong development delays and one of the leading causes globally of brain damage. Some 36 percent of the surveyed children in Bangladesh under five were underweight for their age (showing signs of stunting, and/or “wasting” - weighing too little for their height).
While there has been a slight improvement in child nutrition levels since the last DHS in 2007, there are still too many nutrition-deprived hungry children nationwide, say activists.
“The constitution of Bangladesh must endorse [the] right to food or right to be free from hunger,” Mizanur Rahman, chairman of the independent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), told IRIN.
The country’s goal of halving the rate of people who suffer from hunger “needs more attention”, according to the UN.
Monisha Biswas, policy and advocacy manager for international NGO Oxfam in Bangladesh, said even though Article 15 of the constitution recognizes the state’s responsibility to secure the “basic necessities of life” for its citizens, - including food, it does not recognize a person’s right to food.
As of December 2010 13 countries worldwide recognized the right to food or provided for state obligations relating to food and nutrition as state policy - Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Malawi, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Uganda.
Biswas said constitutional recognition of such a right, or a “legislative framework ensuring people’s right to food security” can be a tool to hold the state accountable for its pledges.
Framework laws cover cross-cutting issues, and lay down general principles and obligations, leaving it to legislation and authorities to decide the specifics of implementation.
The 1996 World Food Summit defined food security as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.
Bangladesh has pledged to implement the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, which in 1986 made it the state’s responsibility to create “conditions favourable to the development of peoples and individuals”.
It also signed the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights (which said everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including food) in 1993.
The country is legally bound to implement the right to development after it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1998.
But in order for states to implement the treaties, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ideally they need appropriate legislation, constitutional provisions and a framework law that clearly support the treaty - none of which exist in Bangladesh.
While the 2012 Global Hunger Index noted Bangladesh was one of seven countries that made the most “absolute progress” among 120 evaluated countries in slashing rates of hunger from 1990-2012, its level was still in the “alarming” range.
Despite the government’s commitment to fight malnutrition through the Sixth Five Year Plan 2011-2015, its policies are ineffective due to limited distribution of nutritional supplements, inadequate growth monitoring and lack of skilled personnel, according to the UN World Food Programme.
The Washington-DC headquartered International Food Policy Research (IFPRI) has said Bangladesh’s food safety-net programmes poorly target the neediest who miss out on safety-net programmes, including “vulnerable group development” and “vulnerable group feeding”.
A.K.M. Nazrul Islam, associate professor with the Dhaka School of Economics, told IRIN that until the country’s overall governance improves, including tackling what he said is corruption in safety-net programmes, it was difficult for him to see any food security law making a difference.
Hasan Mehedi, chief executive of local NGO Humanity Watch, based in Khulna District nearly 150km from Dhaka, said a food security law could help vulnerable people in his natural-disaster prone area survive increasingly frequent and intense weather extremes.
Multiple international indices rank Bangladesh one of the world’s most natural-disaster prone countries.
Zero hunger goals
Bangladesh joins a growing number of countries trying to endorse food as a legally binding right. As of December 2010 there were 56 countries whose constitutions recognized the right to food, implicitly or explicitly, according to FAO.
In 2010 Brazil endorsed food as a right through constitutional amendment, an extension of its near decade-long campaign to wipe out hunger through a “Zero Hunger” Policy (Fome Zero) launched in 2003.
In 2001, the Indian Supreme Court tried to address food insecurity by ordering eight national food and nutrition programmes to ensure the poor had a right to food. The problem was irregularities in how the government identified the poor. The National Food Security Bill now before parliament, which was formulated as a human rights law to protect the right to access food, is already under intense public debate over its feasibility.
In Bangladesh a number of international NGOs including Oxfam and Action Aid, as well as local rights NGOs such as Angikar Bangladesh Foundation and Campaign for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods, are holding national forums - including briefings with parliamentarians - on food rights. The National Human Rights Commission is advising the government on food as a human right.
But most activists acknowledge it could be years before food is recognized as a constitutional or legislative right explicitly.
The director-general of Bangladesh’s Directorate-General of Food, Ahmed Hossain Khan, told IRIN: “If the demand for peoples’ right to food is to be proven useful for… food security in Bangladesh, the government will consider it. However, before that, this demand requires [examination].”