Malnutrition: Another form of 'slow violence' children are facing

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  • The latest SA Child Gauge calls child hunger in South Africa 'slow violence'
  • The report states that stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity compromise children’s health, education and future employment prospects
  • Early intervention, starting during pregnancy is needed to tackle malnutrition in SA


Malnutrition is the “slow violence” that many South African children are facing, according to Child Gauge 2020.

The 200-page document by the University of Cape Town’s Children's Institute was launched on Thursday by South Africa's first lady, Dr Tshepo Motsepe.

“Malnutrition casts a long shadow on children, and their future, robbing them of health and condemning them to continued poor health, while undermining their chances to learn and escape poverty. It is slow violence against our children,” Motsepe says.

The slow violence of malnutrition

According to the report, the term “slow violence” was initially used to describe the gradual, often invisible, but ultimately devastating impact of climate change and deforestation on the environment and poor communities.

In this context, the report used food security researcher, Gareth Haysom’s perspective to describe the “slow violence” of hunger and food insecurity that is also often “experienced in private, incremental and accretive ways – that are often invisible”.

The report states that stunting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity compromise children’s health, education and employment prospects. 

The authors note that South Africa has an incredibly high rate (27%) of children who are stunted. Stunting is a chronic condition that hinders the growth of children due to malnutrition. 

Stunting, along with obesity, are contributing factors that make it hard for the country to reach the Global Nutrition 2025 target. South Africa is currently way below the target. 

“Stunting can have a profound impact on long-term health and development and is associated with impaired health, educational and economic performance in later life, as well as intergenerational transfers with women who had been stunted themselves, giving birth to low-birthweight children.

There are also concerns over long-term consequences for the development of the immune system,” the report reads.

The event of the global Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for children and increased hunger levels, the report says.

During the hard lockdown, 47% of households were running out of money to buy food between May and June 2020. Child and adult hunger increased to 15% and 22% respectively. An improvement was only seen around July/August, following the introduction of the caregiver and Covid-19 relief grants. 

The authors note that food insecurity, which was already high pre-Covid-19, drastically rose before, during and post-lockdown. They add that a basic Household Food Basket in Pietermaritzburg cost R3 554.64 in November 2020, which is an increase of 14.4% from R3 106.42 in November 2019.

Calling for an early intervention

One of the co-authors of the report, Dr Chantell Witten, says that nutrition will not improve  unless maternal health is prioritised, children’s food environments are protected, households are able to access affordable healthy food, and nutrition becomes the centre of the country’s economic policy.

Lori Lake from the institution says that there is a need for early intervention, starting with monitoring of pregnant women’s nutrition and mental health needs, ensuring that during the first 1 000 days of a child's life, they have access to the nutrition that they need.

This includes exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, providing nutrition education, treatment of severe malnutrition, and parenting education and support.

The authors also say that an increase in the child support grant will help to decrease hunger in households and attain more positive nutritional outcomes.

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