Children under the age of two are not getting the food or nutrients they need to thrive and grow well, leading to irreversible developmental harm, a new report by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed.
In a communique on the issue, the UNICEF said the situation has a tendency to get much worse under COVID-19.
The UNICEF report indicated that during crucial period when children begin to transition to solid foods, just 1 in 3 are fed a diet diverse enough to grow well.
Fed to Fail?
The crisis of children’s diets in early life – released ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit this week – warned that rising poverty, inequality, conflict, climate-related disasters, and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are contributing to an ongoing nutrition crisis among the world’s youngest that has shown little sign of improvement in the last ten years.
“The findings of the report are clear: millions of young children are not being fed diets adequate for their growth and development,” said Rushnan Murtaza, UNICEF Nigeria Deputy Representative.
“Poor nutritional intake in the first two years of life can harm children’s rapidly growing bodies and brains, impacting their futures. Now more than ever, with the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions, we need to reimagine a food system that improves the diets of young children, including in Nigeria.”
In an analysis of 91 countries, including Nigeria, the UNICEF report found that half of children aged 6-23 months globally are not being fed the minimum recommended number of meals a day. Two-thirds do not consume the minimum number of food groups they need to thrive.
According to the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, in Nigeria, among children aged 6-23 months, only 23 per cent have the minimum necessary dietary diversity, and only 42 per cent have minimum adequate meal frequency.
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt essential services and drive more families into poverty, the report disclosed that the pandemic is affecting how families feed their children.
According to a study conducted in Nigeria last year, Nigerians were already largely unable to afford healthy diets due to pre-existing food security challenges, with an estimated 40.1 percent of Nigerians unable to cater for their food expenditure. It is likely that this will only be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Children carry the scars of poor diets and feeding practices for life. An insufficient intake of nutrients found to support growth at an early age puts children at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, potentially, death.
Children under the age of two are most vulnerable to all forms of malnutrition – stunting, wasting (low weight for height), micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity – as a result of poor diets, due to their greater need for essential nutrients per kilogram of body weight than at any other time in life.
Globally, UNICEF estimates that more than half of children under the age of 5 with wasting – around 23 million children – are younger than 2 years of age, while the prevalence of stunting increases rapidly between 6 months and two years, as children’s diets fail to keep pace with their growing nutritional needs.
“In Nigeria, one out of every three children is stunted and one of every ten children is wasted. As a result, close to 17 million Nigerian children are undernourished (stunted and/or wasted), giving Nigeria the highest-burden of malnutrition in Africa and the second-highest in the world,” the UNICEF statement partly read.
It further revealed that Nigeria is off-track to achieve SDG2: Zero Hunger by 2030. Adding that to change this trajectory, “the time to act is now to reimagine not just food, but health and social protection systems”.
To deliver nutritious, safe, and affordable diets to every child year-round, the report called for governments, donors, civil society organizations, and development actors to work hand-in-hand to transform food, health, and social protection systems by:
Increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious foods – including fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish meat, and fortified foods – by incentivizing their production, distribution, and retailing.
Implementing national standards and legislation to protect young children from unhealthy processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and to end harmful marketing practices targeting children and families.
Increasing the desirability of nutritious and safe foods through multiple communication channels including digital media to reach parents and children with easy-to-understand, coherent information.
“We have reached a crucial tipping point,” said Rushnan Murtaza. “Only by joining hands with partners, government, and relevant stakeholders, can we transform the Nigerian food system and provide access to diverse, nutritious, safe, and affordable diets for every Nigerian child.
“The upcoming Food Systems Summit provides us the opportunity to reimagine food systems that create a fundamental shift from feeding people to nourishing them. We must apply these learnings to Nigeria so that we can secure a healthy future for our children.”
Over 300,000 Children Killed In Northeast
Meanwhile, UNICEF has revealed that more than 300,000 children lost their lives in the last 12 years because of the insurgency ravaging within the North East region.
In its latest statistics released, UNICEF also disclosed that over one million persons have been displaced within the period under review.
The agency further divulged that no fewer than 5,129 out-of-school children were currently battling mental health challenges as a result of the conflict in the North.
According to a press statement jointly released with the European Union (EU), UNICEF stated that a recent Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) needs assessment of conflict-affected children in north-east Nigeria revealed pervasive psychosocial distress manifesting as high levels of anxiety, suspiciousness, anger, aggressiveness, and hyper-vigilance.
“The scars of conflict are real and enduring for children,” said Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s Representative in Nigeria.
“Too many children in north-east Nigeria are falling victim to a conflict they did not start. Attacks against children must stop immediately. In the meantime, we are committed to working with our partners to provide psychosocial and other support to conflict-affected children so they can regain their childhood and restart their lives.’’
Stress and violence have been linked to poor brain development, depression and poor self-esteem, and children exposed to conflict and violence are at risk of long-term mental health and psychosocial issues.
As children continue to bear the brunt of the 12-year conflict in northeast Nigeria, the EU and UNICEF are working together to provide community-based psychosocial services aimed at improving children’s mental health.
Through the EU-funded Support to Early Recovery and Resilience Project, implemented by UNICEF, at least 5,129 conflict-affected out-of-school children in Borno State, north-east Nigeria in six local government areas are receiving services including mental health support in safe spaces to strengthen their well-being, resilience, literacy skills and self-reliance.
The project also supports vulnerable children across Borno with protection and health services, vocational and basic literacy skills, access to justice and security, under a holistic humanitarian intervention that has so far provided 15,552 out-of-school children with vocational training; 1,610 out-of-school children with literacy and numeracy skills and 5,194 children enrolled into integrated Qur’anic schools across focus LGAs.
According to EU Head of Cooperation Cecile Tassin-Pelzer, “Addressing the psychosocial well-being and development of children and teachers in conflict situations is an important part of re-establishing education provision and enabling children to re-enter schools safely.”
UNICEF uses psychosocial support to help conflict-affected children manage their emotions, solve problems, deal with crises, and maintain healthy relationships.