Image by European Union/Jose Cendon
  • Blog
  • 20 November 2020

To survive and thrive: Opportunities to invest in child nutrition

On World Children's Day, Harpinder Collacott and Basanta Kumar Kar reflect on how investments in child nutrition could help young people survive and thrive.

Every newborn has the right to survive and thrive. This is not an aspirational statement or a goal − it’s a right, enshrined in Articles 6 and 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It's also a right that we should reflect on as we celebrate World Children’s Day today.

This year, Unicef’s annual day of action for children, by children comes at a time when the global Covid-19 pandemic is resulting in disruption, lockdowns, curfews, physical distancing, self-isolation, morbidity and mortality. It is also contributing to hunger and malnutrition, with women and children being hardest hit. The issue of child hunger has therefore made media headlines this year. In the UK, national footballing star Marcus Rushford has led an effective campaign to extend free school meals for children into the school holidays until Easter 2021.

The problem of child hunger has further exposed growing inequalities in the US, with a study led by The Brookings Institute stating: “it is clear that young children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times.” The loss of livelihoods in India has resulted in a dramatic decline in incomes impacting household food security, particularly for the poorest people. These effects have created what Unicef call a child rights crisis. The cost of this is immediate for children around the world and might last a lifetime, if not addressed.

There are crucial steps we can and must take to protect the right of children to survive and thrive. These steps begin with increased investments in nutrition.

The burden of malnutrition

Globally, the burden of malnutrition was already high among children – almost half (45%) of deaths among children under five years of age are linked to undernutrition, and in the same group one in every five children has stunted growth. More and more countries are experiencing the double burden of malnutrition, where undernutrition coexists with overweight, obesity and other diet-related non-communicable diseases. The full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is yet to be determined when data is collated and reviewed, but early signs all point to progress being reversed.

Nutrition outcomes are also impaired by exclusion, discrimination and inequality. Among children aged under five, severe acute malnutrition (wasting) can be up to nine times higher in certain communities within countries; stunting four times higher, and overweight or obesity three times higher. Rates of solid food introduction and minimum diet diversity are substantially lower for children in the poorest households, in rural areas or with a less educated mother. The deeply unfair nature of nutrition outcomes affects demographic dividend, human capital potential, growth and productivity. The global economic downturn will push more and more households into poverty, exposing more children to food poverty. Therefore, all action being taken to address the impacts of the pandemic must prioritise addressing malnutrition amongst children.

A window of opportunity

There is a crucial window of opportunity for investing in better nutrition as an equaliser to transform the lives and livelihoods of all children: the first one thousand days of life. Evidence suggests that investment in the first one thousand days can save governments money in the long term, empower present and future generations and address social inequity and injustice.

This window includes motherhood. Investments in better nutrition for mothers contribute to improved nutrition among newborns, and could reduce rates of stillbirth, low birth weight and malnutrition. This is particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic, with reports of increasing gender-based violence, given that violence during pregnancy also correlates with low birth weight and stunting.

Stillbirth can be extremely traumatic and is often stigmatised, and can therefore remain invisible. One such untold story is that of a 25-year-old woman from Chhattisgarh, India who had a stillbirth. In a poem, she narrates her experience:

"I make a message, never forget, I am a mother the umbilical cord echoes again and again for me to barter my pain."

(extract from Journey, anonymous)

Time for change

This World Children’s Day, we should commit to making nutrition an investment priority as we seek to build back better in a sustainable, inclusive and resilient way. Food insecurity has been exposed as a major challenge in all societies, rich and poor. Now is the time to ensure that children’s rights and lives are priorities, no matter where they are, so they can grow up healthy and make a successful contribution to their communities. Like all other disasters and emergencies, this pandemic has compounded existing vulnerabilities and uncertainty about the future. Policies must prioritise the most vulnerable in society, especially children who are our future.

It is not only about surviving, but thriving – with the care, support, protection and good nutrition every child needs today. It is their right.