South African politicians must urgently address childhood stunting

With Covid-19 plunging vulnerable South African families into deeper poverty and pushing households from the edge of food security into nutritional crises, political parties that will be contesting the upcoming local government elections need to put addressing South Africa’s malnutrition challenge at the centre of their campaigns.

Even before the pandemic, one in four children under the age of five were reported to be suffering from stunting because of chronic malnutrition – a preventable condition that undermines children’s capacity to learn, robs them of the opportunity of fully participating in our country’s economy and traps their families in intergenerational cycles of poverty.

Data emerging from the last two years of the pandemic tells us that Covid-19 has made an already bad nutrition situation in South Africa very much worse. Local studies report that almost half of households run out of money for food during the course of a month, while child hunger is estimated to have increased to 14% and 40% of pregnant women report that they go to bed hungry. 

Food prices have soared and 44% of working age South Africans are without work. Although we do not have new data on stunting rates over these past two years, it is likely that the prevalence of stunting has increased as a result of the pandemic.

This is of grave concern as stunting casts a long shadow on children’s health, education and employment prospects over the course of their lives. It also costs the state more in the long term in terms of healthcare costs, as stunted children are sicklier and at greater risk of chronic diseases in adulthood than their non-stunted counterparts.

If political parties are indeed serious about improving the lives of South Africans, they will need to put stunting at the centre of their electoral campaigns as a way of reducing inequality and improving the livelihoods of all South Africans.

The first 1 000 days of a child’s life is when swift action needs to be taken to prevent stunting. This period is between conception and a baby’s second birthday, when the foundations for future health and optimal development are laid. 

Adequate nutrition and care during this time can positively influence a child’s ability to learn, grow and overcome poverty. Unfortunately in our context there is inadequate social security support for poor and vulnerable women during this period. 

Although our state makes available a child support grant to improve the nutritional status of poor and vulnerable children, this income support is not available during pregnancy when much of the vulnerability to stunting begins and when women face significant financial stress related to loss of employment and increased health, nutrition and childcare costs. 

In addition, at least a third of eligible women struggle to access the child support grant in the first year of their child’s life, meaning that the window of opportunity where this cash would yield high returns on investment – in terms of protecting the child from stunting and its long-term consequences – is missed.

Countries such as Brazil that have demonstrated political will to solve stunting have seen significant reductions in stunting by intervening at the highest level. Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme is one such intervention. The programme, which is understood to have contributed to the country’s drop in stunting, incentivises women financially to help them access good nutrition and antenatal care during pregnancy. Between 2008 and 2012, stunting in Brazilian children under the age of five dropped from 16.8% to 14.5%

In South Africa, one initiative all parties can get behind is the call for an extension of the child support grant into pregnancy so as to provide income support for poor and vulnerable pregnant women. Estimated to add only 1.2% to the total annual grant budget if implemented, this cash transfer would go a long way in our efforts to reduce stunting by ensuring children have access to nutrition and healthcare before they are even born. Like Bolsa Familia, a maternity support grant could be the catalyst for reducing stunting, poverty, and inequality for the next generation.

We at Grow Great challenge all the parties to pledge their support to the maternity support grant, which has been on the cards for some time. It’s time to move beyond rhetoric. Every ambitious political leader who cares about the future of our country needs to commit to fighting stunting if we are to improve our fortunes as a country.

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Ofentse Mboweni
Ofentse Mboweni is communications officer for the Grow Great campaign. He has a keen interest in South African politics and history, is an avid reader and loves anything to do with good hip-hop music, literature and afrofuturism. Described as a "blerd" and postmodernist by some, he prefers to be called OJ.

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