By Julius Barigaba
Kampala, Feb 25 2010
World Food Programme and Uganda’s Ministry of Health have started a campaign that is meant to end chronic child hunger, which accounts for nearly 40% of the country’s stunted growths among children.
A joint statement released by the two bodies indicates that in Uganda’s western district of Bundibugyo—where the drive was launched—at least 45% of children aged under five have been left stunted due to poor diets.
Chronic hunger, a condition that is not far removed from high levels of poverty, is not a strange issue in Uganda, considering that nearly a third of Uganda’s 30 million population lives in chronic poverty, with absolutely no access to basics such as food, shelter and clothing. For such populations attending school is considered a luxury.
So, exactly what is chronic hunger among children? It is a condition where children lack the required nutrients—especially protein—over a sustained period in their early lives. It can lead to stunted growth and compromise mental development. Child chronic hunger has left over 38% of all children, under five countrywide, short for their age, or with development and learning problems that may lead to poor performance in school.
“Just over 38% of all children in Uganda, aged five and under, are stunted,” WFP Uganda Country Director, Stanlake Samkange said. “This a major challenge as the condition can lead to life-long damage to the minds and futures of children.”
The three-year programme aims at sensitising people on the importance of giving the right foods to children. But this programme will also rope in a related aspect of feeding pregnant women appropriately.
“Chronic hunger is a problem throughout south-western Uganda,” Samkange said. “Despite the large amounts and varieties of food that the people grow, research shows that they generally lack adequate knowledge on appropriate nutrition for pregnant women and young children.”
For a country that produces vast amounts of food, this is an indictment on the welfare and relief functions of the Uganda government. These deficiencies, largely explained by alarming levels of poverty and prolonged periods of drought, are also a result of most food produced in these areas going into export markets around the region, particularly in Southern Sudan and Kenya. This situation has also been compounded by the ever rising food prices, and Uganda has not been spared this phenomenon.
President Yoweri Museveni is on record as saying “high food prices are a blessing for farmers Uganda’s farmers”, but it is also evident from the WFP statement that the country’s children are paying a heavy price for it. Clearly, the option of stunted growth is not very exciting.
Government has been drawing poverty drives for the country’s poor, but these have often been wide of the mark. It is safe to say that Uganda lacks appropriate safety net mechanisms that would otherwise address such problems among just over nine million chronically poor people.
The story of stunted children in Bundibugyo can apply anywhere else in the country’s poverty and hunger zones like Karamoja, Teso and Acholi and West Nile sub regions as well as in slums around the country. The picture is not any different across sub Sahara Africa’s least developed countries which frequently record hunger-related deaths.
One cause of chronic child hunger here is introducing young children to complementary foods too early, and the poor nutritional quality of these foods. The Ministry of Health policy on the feeding of infants and young children recommends that all infants must be exclusively breastfed for the first six months. Appropriate complementary foods are then introduced thereafter, but mother must continue to breastfeed up to two years, and beyond.
However, a study conducted in Bundibugyo in January this year found that most of the children aged six months to two years, and even some younger than six months, were fed on cassava and mashed plantain. These types of food do not have sufficient energy or protein to support proper child growth. Area leaders warn that this is dangerous.
“Let us resolve to revise the feeding of our children and pregnant women so that we can give our young ones a great start in life,” said District Chairman Jackson Bambalira. “To appreciate the impact of hunger, you need to look at the long term. What happens at one stage of life affects later stages. The development of our district depends on the next generation growing to their full physical and mental potential.”
The effects of stunting can go on to adulthood. Life expectancy of the people affected is shorter and there are high chances that their babies will be underweight.
“Uganda’s overall stunting rate for children is unacceptable,” said Commissioner for Community Health Anthony Mbonye, adding that should the drive improve the nutrition status of children, it would be rolled out to other districts affected by chronic hunger like Kasese, Kisoro, Kanungu and Bushenyi, plus certainly the mother of them all, the Karamoja region.”
WFP is implementing a new strategic policy of not just providing food aid, but also trying to help people gain some measure of food and nutrition security, building on the work that the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organisation and other UN agencies are mandated to do to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.