Living in South Africa is not for Sissie’s. Daily we have to contend with out-of-control crime, rampant corruption, ineffective and broken state-controlled enterprises, high unemployment and a struggling economy. In our efforts to cope and to keep our own heads above water, we have sadly become largely immune to the suffering of others.
It is hard to feel empathy when everywhere you look you see poverty and suffering – just a short car trip exposes us to the less fortunate at every traffic light, mother’s clutching babies to their bosom or a disheveled man holding a carboard sign highlighting his plight … “3 kids, no job, no food”.
The sad reality is that if we see a future for ourselves and our children in this beautiful country, we have to care, we have to get involved and do our bit to rectify the huge imbalance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The plight of children is of particular concern …. every child deserves to have access to proper food on a daily and regular basis. This should not be a privilege – but a right – an inherent right to life.
Globally, over 1 million children die every year with malnutrition being the underlying cause.
These child deaths are happening here and now. More than one in four children (27%) in South Africa are stunted – a sign of chronic malnutrition. That essentially means that a staggering 27% of children are not getting the necessary micronutrients and will likely not reach their full growth and development potential.
Malnutrition is devastating – it systematically destroys a child – their cognitive development, their immune system, their body as well as their muscle growth and makes them more vulnerable to disease and death. Should they survive, they are more susceptible to being stunted and having long-term physical and cognitive developmental delays. Malnutrition is exacerbated by poverty and inequality – two thirds (59%) of South Africa’s children live in poverty, and South Africa is regarded as one of the most unequal countries in the world.
We are failing the children of South Africa
It is absolutely astounding that in a country like South Africa stunting rates are 27% and have been at this level since 1999. Whilst other countries, that are less endowed than South Africa, have shown a significant decrease in stunting rates – such as Kenya where the stunting rate has halved over the corresponding period and is now lower than South Africa’s. Several other low- and middle-income countries like Rwanda, which although still concerningly high, successfully decreased its stunting level from 44% in 2010 to 38% in 2015.
South Africa is projected by UNICEF to have 1.7 million stunted children in 2025 – nearly twice as high as the 900 000 World Health Assembly target for 2025.
Disturbingly, UNICEF estimates that, in the absence of decisive and timely action, Covid-19 will result, globally, in a 15% rise in the number of children needing critical nutrition services. This equates to an additional 140 million children being thrust into poverty and an estimated 10 000 more child deaths each month.
Is malnutrition the same as starvation?
Malnutrition is an umbrella term for poor nutrition – where the body is not getting sufficient vitamins and minerals in order to maintain good health, even if enough calories are being consumed. This can include excess consumption of nutrients (overnutrition) or inadequate consumption or absorption of one or more nutrients (undernutrition).
The three broad groups of conditions under the term ‘malnutrition’ are:
· micronutrient-related malnutrition (e.g., lack of vitamins); and
· overnutrition, which can lead to obesity and diet-related diseases (such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer).
Starvation is the most severe form of undernutrition and is a term used to describe a condition where the body is not getting enough food. Eventually, after an extended period of time, the body starts to shut down – leading to permanent organ damage and death.
Children who consume diets that do not have sufficient nutrients (vitamins and minerals) are at risk of undernutrition which can manifest itself in the form of stunting, wasting, or being underweight. Many children are provided a daily diet of bread or pap – although this appears to fill their little tummy’s, it simply does not have the nutrients required for a child to grow and develop. It just doesn’t.
Why is nutrition for preschoolers so important?
Well, good nutrition is important for all ages – however a child’s early years are critical for development. The first five years of life are a period of rapid physical, mental, emotional, social and moral growth and development. This is a time when young children acquire concepts, skills and attitudes that lay the foundation for lifelong learning.
At birth, the average baby’s brain is about a quarter of the size of the average adult brain. Incredibly, it doubles in size in the first year and keeps growing to about 80% of adult size by age 3 and then up to 90% – nearly fully-grown – by age 5.
So, if a young child doesn’t receive the correct nutrition, the negative long-term impact is significant. And the impact is not limited to the child alone but has an impact across his/her community, society, and the broader economy as a whole.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
The far-reaching impact of malnutrition
Impact on the child:
Improving nutrition in very young children will not only improve their health and quality of life, it will enable the child to develop physically as well as improve cognitive functioning and brain development – the returns of which will accrue over the child’s lifetime.
These improvements also serve as a type of scaffolding upon which future development and education can be built – drastically improving the child’s future life trajectory.
Impact on the family:
The impact of child malnutrition on the family can be overwhelming.
· Care for a sick child can take its toll emotionally and financially (loss of workdays to look after the child, transport costs to clinics, funeral costs etc.)
· The grown child is oftentimes unable to contribute to the family and elderly parents’ future wellbeing.
Impact on Society:
In addition to malnutrition directly impacting the children and their families – it extends across society:
· These children suffer both physical and cognitive development – which in turn, severely impacts their education trajectory and ultimately their ability to enter the labor force.
According to the Global Hunger Index (2015), studies have shown that adults who are stunted as children earn 20% less than comparable adults who were not stunted and are 30% more likely to live in poverty and less likely to work in skilled labour. Thus, the economic costs of undernutrition, in terms of lost national productivity and economic growth, are significant – ranging up to 11% of the GDP in Africa each year.
· High unemployment can contribute to increased involvement in criminal activities. It also places excessive stress on an already overburdened welfare system.
· Ongoing sickness (and often resultant death), compounds pressure on clinics and hospitals to care for these patients.
It is not my problem – it is government’s responsibility to care for the youth
The drastic state of malnutrition in South Africa is exacerbated by poverty and inequality: Two thirds (59%) of South Africa’s children live in poverty. High unemployment, a declining economy and the legacy from COVID-19 have further worsened the plight of South Africa’s children.
South Africa is regarded as one of the most unequal countries in the world. If we as a country are going to survive (and even thrive), something has to give. Drastic across the board change is required. Government needs to mobilise our health systems, security forces, housing, water and sanitation systems, education (including schools and ECD centers) to put our children first. However business and civil society also have a critical role to play – they need to make their collective voices heard, to become involve and organise around the violence against children that is malnutrition.
But the real kicker is…
Malnutrition can be prevented!
There are enough experts and passionate people across academia, society, and government, who know what to do. We all need to work in unison. But change often takes time, and to be frank, time for many, many children is running out.
We South Africans are however known for our tenacity and for having big hearts – and when the chips are down, we as a nation invariably put our differences aside, pull together and ‘move mountains’.
It is this national depth of ‘character’ that we hope to appeal to, to create awareness and hopefully encourage some type of action or involvement.
At Headstart Kids we are impacting thousands of children every day. But the problem is big. Very big. We need your help to make a real difference. Get involved https://headstartkids.co.za/get-involved/