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Cuts to social grants will be disastrous for our children — experts

01 June 2021 - 07:00 By sipokazi fokazi
Child health and public health experts argue that the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened poverty, affecting mostly children. The government also hasn't made the situation any better through its cuts to social grants.
Child health and public health experts argue that the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened poverty, affecting mostly children. The government also hasn't made the situation any better through its cuts to social grants.
Image: Alon Skuy

Rising unemployment and high food prices during the Covid-19 pandemic have pushed many South African households even deeper into poverty — putting children at even greater risk of food insecurity and systematic violence.

This is the chilling warning from child health and public health experts as SA commemorates Child Protection Week.

Experts from the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute also cautioned that the government’s cuts to social grants — including the child support grant — would leave many children hungrier as families are forced to buy cheaper and calorie-dense foods with no nutritional value. This, in turn, puts them at risk of malnutrition.

A local survey this year showed that by February and March, one in seven households reported that a child went to bed hungry. This is nearly double pre-pandemic levels. It also showed that beneficiaries of the child support grant were most likely to run out of money for food.

Yet child hunger is just the tip of the iceberg. As families attempt to shield their children from hunger by eating less and purchasing cheaper, less nutritious meals, these empty calories are likely to further worsen SA’s already high rates of stunting, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity,” the Children's Institute warned in a statement.

Despite promises by the government to protect children during the pandemic and beyond, and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promises to tackle violence against women and children and his emphasis that childhood nutrition is central to national plans to rebuild the economy, experts said that, instead, budget cuts were introduced which targeted the poor.

“After a year in which millions of households were thrust into desperate poverty and children suffered the effects of food insecurity, came a shock decision to limit the child support grant increase to just R10. The government has targeted social grants for budget cuts and allowed them to fall behind food price inflation.

“Early childhood development services have also fallen victim to budget cuts, alongside impossibly stringent registration requirements, and many have been forced to close altogether. These critical support systems to help struggling families and vulnerable children have been eroded,” said the institute.    

According to communication and education specialist Lori Lake, child malnutrition is a form of “slow violence” that systematically destroyed a child’s developing body and brain, damaging their health, education and employment prospects.

Lake said malnutrition was a problem even before the start of the pandemic. A third of children lived in households below the food poverty line who cannot afford to buy enough food to meet their minimum daily energy requirements — “let alone providing their children with a diverse nutrient-rich diet needed to promote optimal development”.

It was therefore not surprising that a quarter (or 27%) of young children are stunted — a sign of chronic malnutrition which hampers children’s physical growth and their cognitive development.

“These stunting rates are very high for a middle-income country and have remained stubbornly unchanged for the past 20 years,” said Lake.

According to Africa’s largest and longest running study of child and adolescent health and development, Birth to Twenty (BT20), the majority of South African children have been exposed to some kind of violence.

The study found that 99% of children in this birth cohort had experienced or witnessed some form of violence, and that nearly half of preschool-aged children were reported to have experienced physical punishment by parents or caregivers, which is often used as a method of discipline.

One of the study authors, Prof Shanaaz Mathews, expressed worry about more severe forms of violence: “Infanticide (the killing of a newborn infant) is emerging as a hidden problem through data collected from the child death review project and pointing to the urgent need to support pregnant women as part of our violence prevention response.”  

Nearly half (45%) of all child homicides are associated with child abuse and neglect and nearly three-quarters (74%) of these child abuse deaths were in the under-five age group and occur in the home.

Researchers noted that there are multiple drivers of violence against children which are interrelated. They  include  social norms and patriarchy, and past experiences shape how parents discipline their children and resolve conflict. 

“But structural factors such as poverty, overcrowding, and food insecurity are also major contributors. In addition, depression during pregnancy and postnatally is concerning.

“Postnatal depression is under-diagnosed and can further drive problems such as infanticide and poor infant-parent bonding. Pregnant women are not exempt from gender-based violence, and some studies show an increase in violence during pregnancy. All of these factors have been worsened during lockdown,” said Mathews.

Lizette Berry, senior researcher at the Children’s Institute, said exposure to ongoing violence is especially damaging during the first 1,000 days of life.

“The affect of excessive physical and psychological stress or trauma, also known as toxic stress, can disrupt the development of the brain architecture, which may result in lifelong consequences,” said Berry.