/ 21 March 2022

Investing in nutrition is a crucial step in improving children’s rights

Somalia Displaced Drought Famine
An eight-month-old child receives high nutrition foods at Tawkal 2 Dinsoor camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Baidoa, Somalia, on February 14, 2022. Insufficient rainfall since late 2020 has come as a fatal blow to populations already suffering from a locust invasion between 2019 and 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic. For several weeks, humanitarian organizations have multiplied alerts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, which raises fears of a tragedy similar to that of 2011, the last famine that killed 260,000 people in Somalia. - Desperate, hungry and thirsty, more and more people are flocking to Baidoa from rural areas of southern Somalia, one of the regions hardest hit by the drought that is engulfing the Horn of Africa. (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

South Africa is just two years shy of celebrating 30 years of democracy. Ahead of this critical moment in our country’s life, those in leadership should be asking themselves whether they have done enough to support the realisation of the human rights of our country’s citizens — particularly the most vulnerable, South Africa’s women and children.

Our globally renowned Constitution makes special provision for children in section 28 of the Bill of Rights, stating that “every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services”. However, with 27% of children under five suffering from stunting because of chronic malnutrition in their early years of life, the right to nutrition remains unattained for far too many of South Africa’s children.

One of the more adverse effects of stunting is that it impairs children’s cognitive capacities, which means that they experience learning challenges in school and struggle to find employment as adults — denying them the opportunity to live full and productive lives and robbing them of the future our Constitution is designed to protect.

South Africa has made significant strides in reducing poverty since the child support grant was introduced in 1998. The grant is linked to positive developmental outcomes for children in health, nutrition and education. However it does not cover pregnancy, a time when a child’s growth relies mostly on the nutrition of the mother, and also when almost a quarter of mothers in our country face hunger and malnutrition, which has negative effects on the growth and development of their babies. Furthermore, up to 40% of children who are eligible for the child support grant do not access it in their first year of life, when it would have the greatest impact in terms of preventing stunting.

A cash transfer upon pregnancy would support children’s brain and physical development as pregnant mothers would be able to provide adequate nutrition for their growing children. The money would also provide for the transport fare that vulnerable mothers need to attend the antenatal check-ups that are critical for optimal child and maternal health. In addition, an expanded child support grant could go a long way in improving maternal mental health. More than 40% of expectant mothers suffer from antenatal depression, which can increase the risk of food insecurity and affect babies’ health.

Research from countries that offer vulnerable pregnant women income support have seen significant returns on investment in terms of maternal and child health outcomes, with this money being spent mostly on nutritious food. These cash transfers were also shown to enable pregnant women’s attendance of routine healthcare visits and improve child growth and maternal wellbeing.

As we celebrate this year’s Human Rights Day and reflect on how far we have come in building a more just society, we should ponder on the importance of never resting on our laurels when it comes to creating “a better life for all”. 

Extending the child support grant into pregnancy will play a vital role in shifting the needle on stunting in South Africa and give every child, regardless of economic status, a fair chance at a full and productive life. This should not only be seen as responding to a preventable illness that casts a long shadow on the health and wellbeing of children (which it is) but also as a human rights imperative (which it also is!).