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WORLD CHILDREN’S DAY OP-ED

We are failing in our constitutional obligation to South Africa’s young ones

We are failing in our constitutional obligation to South Africa’s young ones
(Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life — not necessarily through parental neglect, but because of poverty and lack of access to healthy foods.

In South Africa, section 28 of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution proclaims that every child has a set of basic rights, over and above those afforded to all South Africans — those rights include nutrition, healthcare and social services, shelter, and protection from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation.

But disparities in wealth and access mean that the worlds into which children in South Africa are born and the opportunities to which they have access are incredibly unequal. According to Unicef, more than half the children in the country live below the poverty line; one-third of girls experience some form of violence before the age of 18; and two-thirds of children eligible for early childhood development programmes do not have access to them.

Those numbers alone demonstrate that we are failing in our constitutional obligation to our children — the bare minimum we owe them as described by the founding document of our country. So how are we supposed to help them thrive in a deeply unequal society?

World Children’s Day on 20 November — the anniversary of the day on which the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 — is a reminder to consider the rights of children.

It’s also an opportunity to give them the platform to speak out on the issues that matter to their generation and call for adults to create a better future. This year’s theme is “For every child, every right” and serves as a rallying call to deliver all the rights children are guaranteed — and more.

Access to education

Early childhood development (ECD) centres are described as the “foundation phase” of children’s education. The 2021 Early Childhood Development (ECD) Census showed that 42,420 early learning programmes (ELPs) in SA collectively had 1,660,316 children enrolled.

The Centre for Early Childhood Development estimates that each day in South Africa some 32,000 ECD centres provide education, care and wellbeing for around 2.5 million children.

The fact that the country can provide care and support for between 1.6 and 2.5 million young children every day is something of a miracle in the face of the Department of Basic Education’s own figures that just 33% of these programmes receive a subsidy from the Department of Social Development.

More than two-thirds (68%) of ELPs are registered as non-profit organisations and just under a third (31%) are part of a larger network or organisation comprising multiple ELPs, such as regional ECD forums.

Thousands of ECD centres are registered as beneficiaries of the MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet programme and we work with organisations like Grow Educare, Breadline Africa and Impande to improve ECD conditions.

Our own Dream2Teach Scholarship Fund which MySchool supporters can also nominate as a beneficiary — gives students the chance to reach their teaching dreams, while also fighting youth unemployment, turning a challenge into an opportunity to create positive change.

Access to water and sanitation

Another of South Africa’s major inequality pressure points is access to safe water and proper sanitation — and this has a major impact on education. More than half of the world’s schools lack access to safe water and sanitation facilities.

The Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) says that every child has the right to a quality education, which includes access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene facilities at school. As children (should) spend a significant portion of their daily lives at school, having access to clean water and sanitation is of vital importance.

In underprivileged, water-scarce areas many learners are unable to complete their education because of the lack of water and toilets at schools.

The DBSA’s report explains that the lack of available clean water has serious negative effects on learners’ academic performance and attendance rates due to the fact that without access to clean drinking water, learners contract water-borne diseases, are unable to concentrate for long periods of time due to dehydration and fail to maintain proper hygiene standards.

The Woolies Water Fund, a partnership between Woolworths and MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet, has successfully implemented water intervention solutions worth R7.3-million in schools. These include more than 600 hand-washing stations and 172 water tanks in four provinces, as well as providing the capacity to store more than one million litres of rainwater at more than 100 schools, ensuring ongoing access to safe water.

The water collected in the rainwater tanks can be used for handwashing stations and toilets to support schools and prevent the disruption of learning caused by water outages. The aim is also to help schools to grow sustainable food gardens of vegetables and fruit for school lunches and to share the produce with their communities.

Access to nutritious food

Unicef’s The State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition report found that, in South Africa, 27% (1.7 million) of children under five are too short for their age, more than 2.5% (143,349) are wasted, 61% (3.7 million) suffer from anaemia, and 13% (762,615) are overweight. South Africa has the highest percentage of overweight children under five in east and southern Africa.

Poor eating and feeding practices start from the earliest days of a child’s life — not necessarily through parental neglect, but because of poverty and lack of access to healthy foods.

Worldwide, close to 45% of children between six months and two years of age are not fed any fruits or vegetables and nearly 60% do not eat any eggs, dairy, fish or meat, according to the Unicef report. 

The report says, “As children grow older, their exposure to unhealthy food becomes alarming, driven largely by inappropriate marketing and advertising, the abundance of ultra-processed foods in cities but also in remote areas, and increasing access to fast food and highly sweetened beverages. 42% of school-going adolescents in low- and middle-income countries consume carbonated sugary soft drinks at least once a day and 46% eat fast food at least once a week.”

MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet beneficiaries do plenty of work around food security, like The Sprightly Seed, which delivers kitchen and food-garden infrastructure projects to child-focused projects. The African Children’s Feeding Scheme distributes food parcels, hosts volunteer events to work in its gardens and helps communities establish small vegetable gardens which can provide food for families throughout the year and create an opportunity for income generation by selling any excess.

We need to work harder to give our children more than they’re constitutionally or legally entitled to. Delivering on the basics will help them survive — doing better for them will help them thrive. DM

Pieter Twine is the general manager of MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet.

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