South Africa’s First Lady, Dr Tshepo Motsepe, has called on the Ministers responsible for food and nutrition security to strengthen food safety nets for children.
Motsepe made the plea on Thursday, when she delivered the opening address at the launch of the 2020 South African Child Gauge, hosted by the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute.
The First Lady said there is a need to strengthen the food security nets for children, including the National School Nutrition Programme, the Early Child Development subsidy, campaigns for exclusive breastfeeding, programmes of food fortification and food supplementation as well as social protection policies.
“And we need these to be effectively implemented and adequately resourced,” said Motsepe.
She added that in line with the recommendations of the United Nations and in support of the Department of Health’s Nutrition Policy, prioritising children and safeguarding their food and nutrition security was “imperative”.
This, she said, would ensure the protection of their health, education and wellbeing, more so now given the negative impacts of COVID-19.
The plight of children has remained a passion of Motsepe in her various capacities and years of experience in health and development work.
“Long before the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, we as a country, have been acutely aware that a significant number of South Africans do not have access to sufficient food and go hungry on a daily basis.
“The extent of child malnutrition in South Africa has often been documented and it is with distress that we learn of the deteriorating situation, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions.”
She bemoaned the country’s child stunting rates that show South Africa is lagging behind in nurturing children.
“Stunting reflects chronic under nutrition and a lack of adequate food to promote optimal growth and development,” said Motsepe. “Our national demographic health survey confirmed that the proportion of children who are stunted has not changed since 1993.”
The negative impact that COVID-19 has had on household earnings and on the prices of basic foods paint a very dim picture regarding any progress to addressing chronic malnutrition of children.
“We salute the efforts and initiatives that communities and civil society have embarked on to bring relief to the hungry,” she said, adding that while the efforts of organisations and individuals were commendable, much more needed to be done.
“We cannot turn our eyes away from images that mirror the gravity of hunger in our society. It is saddening to see people standing in long winding queues for food, as we have seen in media reports,” she said.
The National Department of Health Ministerial Committee for the Morbidity and Mortality of Children has found that malnutrition remains a significant underlying cause of child mortality which is linked to one third of all child in-hospital deaths.
Motsepe said while society may be distraught by these hospital-based findings, the larger burden of malnutrition lies in communities and in families, often hidden until later in the life of affected children.
The First Lady said malnutrition casts a long shadow on children and their futures. It robs them of health and wellbeing and condemns them to continued ill-health while undermining their chances to learn, to earn and to escape poverty.
“It is a slow violence against our children, and we cannot thrive as a country when our children are shackled to a life of hunger and malnutrition,” she said.
She warned that hungry children will go in search of food, leading them onto the streets and unsafe environments.
“Children who are hungry cannot concentrate and learn. Children who are hungry become vulnerable to negative elements who will feed and manipulate them,” she said.
Addressing hunger and malnutrition is not just a health issue, hunger and malnutrition have negative social and economic impacts. “Not enough food in the home has a negative influence on family dynamics and not having enough food as a community leads to instability and violence.”
Motshepe urged society to strive to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry.
She congratulated the 2020 Child Gauge Team for its hard work in documenting the plight of children’s food security and nutrition by providing its latest evidence.