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Johannesburg - About 2.5 million children go hungry each year in South Africa, and researchers warn that today’s unmet needs will have serious consequences for tomorrow without more early childhood interventions.
Released on Thursday, the UCT Children’s Institute’s latest Child Gauge report notes that despite the expansion of social grants and the introduction of school-feeding schemes, millions of children in South Africa still go hungry.
Poverty, deprivation and inequality will have a major effect on the country’s next generation unless programmes are put in place to ensure young children have access to better nutrition and healthcare, and grow up in stimulating environments.
Produced in partnership with the UN Children’s Fund, the report notes that while the country has reduced maternal mortality, hunger and stunting as well as increasing access to care, there are stark, lingering inequities between provinces and population groups.
About a third of children in the Northern Cape go hungry - more than three times the percentage of Gauteng children who reportedly experience a lack of food.
Limpopo reported the lowest rates of child hunger, with about 4 percent of children skipping meals. The province has reduced child hunger rates by about 24 percent since 2002.
In 2002, 6.4 million children had to travel more than 30 minutes to reach their nearest clinic. Today, that number has dropped by 2 million, but the report notes that disparities remain between population groups.
Black children are three times as likely as other children to have to travel far for medical care and least likely to have access to a private car if in need of medical attention.
UCT’s research comes on the heels of recent Human Sciences Research Council surveys that found more than 25 percent of all South African children below the age of three years were stunted, or too short for their age, due to malnutrition.
To counter these inequities and poverty’s impact on children, the report sets out a set of essential services that should be implemented for children nine years old and younger.
“It’s important to prioritise access to services for young children as we go about building the foundation for our younger citizens,” said Children Institute senior researcher Lizette Berry.
Among the report’s proposed essential services are nutritional support, increased access to health services and an increased focus on caregivers’ mental health.
“Caregivers have the primary responsibility for caring and nurturing young children. In a context where there is poverty, numerous burdens of care and risk factors like HIV and unemployment, that really does compromise the ability of caregivers to provide appropriate care.”
The Department of Social Development is developing a national early childhood development programme that will define a minimum early childhood development service package.
Berry said she hopes the department will take some of the report’s recommendations into consideration as it formulates policies and programmes.
“A key opportunity is the expansion of community-based health services as part of the current re-engineering of primary healthcare (because) community health workers can reach into the home to support the very young and their families,” Berry said.
In particular, children younger than three must be prioritised for nutritional support if we want to see improvements in children’s health and education outcomes.”
Health-e News Service