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By Getrude Makhafola

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116 children died of malnutrition in Eastern Cape- SAHRC report

Parents and guardians told the commission about their daily struggles to provide their children with proper nutrition.

At least 116 children died of severe acute malnutrition between 2021 and 2022 in the Eastern Cape, an SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) inquiry has found.

According to the commission’s provincial manager Eileen Carter, there are many unreported deaths linked to malnutrition, calling the crisis a type of “slow violence” engulfing children in the Eastern Cape.

The commission further found that 27% of children in the province suffer from stunting as a result of malnutrition, with black children the most affected compared to other races.

The inquiry was conducted by the Eastern Cape SAHRC in August 2022.

Child malnutrition crisis

Releasing the report on Wednesday in East London, the commission said the province was facing a crisis
that threatened the health and future of its children.

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Submissions and testimonies from various organisations, government entities, community NGO’s and parents “painted a grim picture of the situation”, said the SAHRC.

“They revealed alarming rates of malnutrition-related illnesses and even fatalities. Testimonies from parents and guardians highlighted the daily struggles they face in providing adequate nutrition to their children.

“Some submissions also pointed out the lack of adequate healthcare facilities and the challenges in accessing existing ones, especially in rural areas,” read the report.

Between April 2021 and March 2022, about 1087 children were found to have severe acute malnutrition. At least 116 of them died from the condition.

Severe acute malnutrition is diagnosed when a child weighs less than 60% of their recommended weight.

EC malnutrition cases on the increase

Noting that Health Minister Joe Phaahla reported a 26% increase in severe malnutrition among children under five in the past five years in the country, the SAHRC decried the Eastern Cape’s situation, saying the province had the most significant increase.

According to the report, the rising cases are believed to have been worsened by Covid-19 and food price hikes.

“From the above, it is clear that malnutrition and hunger are not only adversely affecting children in their growth and development, but [also] they are losing their lives as a result of being hungry,” the commission said.

The report further criticised underspending by government, which has implications for access to basic nutrition and child welfare in the Eastern Cape.

According to the provincial Treasury’s submissions to the inquiry, underspending amounted to nearly R500 million in the past three years, especially in the Department of Social Development.

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The inquiry said the underspending raised questions about the allocation and utilisation of funds intended for alleviating child malnutrition and poverty.

Extend school nutrition to early learning centres

Among the recommendations to halt malnutrition in children, the SAHRC proposes that government’s nutrition programmes for school children be extended to pre-primary schools, also known as early childhood development centres.

The commission found the exclusion of pre-primary schools was a violation of the children’s right to life and dignity.

The following are some of the recommendations from the commission:-

  • National Treasury and the Department of Social Development look into increasing the child support grant to keep up with inflation. Implementation of a staggered rollout of the child grant increase, starting with children under school-going age (0-5 years).
  • The Department of Basic Education probe the possibility of expanding school nutrition programme to include weekends and school holidays, to provide consistent access to meals for the vulnerable children.
  • Eastern Cape must urgently roll out another programme that encourages teenage mothers to breastfeed their babies.
  • The Department of Health establish nutrition-focused early childhood development clinics in partnership with social development to provide regular check-ups, growth monitoring, and nutritional counselling for children under five, especially in vulnerable communities.

National departments and the Eastern Cape government were given three months to report to the commission in writing on how they plan to implement the recommendations.

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