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SA can't protect children from chronic hunger

FILE IMAGE: Since the dawn of democracy in SA in 1994, the country has struggled with a persistent high level of child malnutrition measured as stunting, when children are too short for their age.
FILE IMAGE: Since the dawn of democracy in SA in 1994, the country has struggled with a persistent high level of child malnutrition measured as stunting, when children are too short for their age.
Image: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius

As we commemorated Human Rights Day  on 21 March, we are acutely aware of the failures of the state to realise and satisfy the human rights enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, especially for children.

Since the dawn of democracy in SA in 1994, the country has struggled with a persistent high level of child malnutrition measured as stunting, when children are too short for their age.  This is not just shortness of height but it is a proxy for compromised health and a risk factor for lower cognitive development, lower education attainment and lower future productivity both in work output and in earning capabilities. Unhealthy children are likely to be our future unhealthy adults and compromised human development.

It is for this reason that all efforts must be explored to protect children from hunger. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic more than two years ago, there have been huge negative impacts on global health and development, which are bearing down on the youngest members of the planet, our children.

South Africa has the largest social protection programme for children on the African continent with a child support grant that benefits more than 12-million children under the age of 18 years. On February 23, finance minister Enoch Godongwana announced that the child support grant would increase from R460 to R480 per month as from  April 1.

A mere 4% increase, against a year-on-year food and non-alcoholic beverages inflation of 5.5%, rendering the already measly child support grant ineffective to keep hunger at bay, much less to address the nutrition that children need to grow and be healthy.

One of SA’s leading civil society organisations, the Black Sash, undertook research with the South African Medical Research Council to explore how households receiving the child support grant managed with respect to food procurement and dietary patterns.

It was not surprising to find that all 12 households included in this qualitative study were not able to cope or meet their food needs. These households’ food purchasing patterns were insufficient in quantity and in dietary quality. All household members were not able to eat regularly or sufficiently to keep hunger at bay. Even for children, hunger was a norm.

The most heart-wrenching finding is the constant experience of trauma faced by caregivers to provide food for their hungry children. The constant cries for food would drive caregivers to ‘hit the children and send them to bed. Sleeping is an escape from hunger and having to deal with hunger. These households are under severe psychological strain, re-emphasising that hungry people are angry people.

While caregivers are resourceful in trying to stretch the food budget by buying cheaper, smaller quantities of food products, giving small children many smaller snack foods and taking cash loans to buy foods, these efforts do not shield children from the physical and psychological harm of hunger.

A whole-of-society response is needed to create more provision efforts like community outreach kitchens, food drives and donations, macro-policy initiatives to subsidise food for grant recipients, promotion and support of food gardens and to push government to institute a Basic Income Grant for unemployed persons 18-59 years of age. The child support grant is not enough to protect children from chronic hunger, which itself is maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation as enshrined in the South African Bill of Rights.                                            

Dr Witten is health sciences academic at the University of the Free State.                                            

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