The relevant authorities must do more to address the problem of hunger and malnutrition

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed that the South-west has the second highest number of stunted children in Nigeria. Some 19.4 per cent of children in the zone are stunted. The South-east and the South-south are relatively better. The North is worse off as millions are undernourished. “This calls for more work by everyone – government and all of us. As agenda setters, we must do more to keep child nutrition conversations on the priority list of those that can act to reverse this ugly trend,” said UNICEF Communication Officer, Blessing Ejiofor last week.

It is very depressing that in Nigeria no fewer than six million children, representing about 37 per cent, are stunted while the world’s average is 25 per cent, even when the figure for Rwanda, another African country, is 20 per cent. Meanwhile, going by the same dreary statistics, 29 per cent of our children are underweight, compared with the global average of 15 per cent. Again, the figure for Rwanda is 2.5 per cent. For all the zones in the country the situation is bad, but alarming in the rural areas. This should worry the authorities.

The cost of disregarding this issue in human and economic terms cannot be quantified, especially when child mortality in Nigeria has malnutrition as the major underlying factor. It is even more unfortunate that the children being born by those already in distress are made to face a very uncertain future. It is worse for the mothers since pregnant women who are not adequately nourished would eventually give birth to babies with low weight, thus further putting the survival of the babies at risk.

Since stunting also severely limits the cognitive senses, what we are doing is permanently short-changing not only the physical, but also the mental capacities of our future citizens. “The nutrients a child receives in the earliest years of life influence their brain development for life, and can make or break their chance of a prosperous future. By protecting and supporting children’s development in early life, we are able to achieve immense results for children throughout their lifespan,” said UNICEF Senior Nutrition Adviser, Roland Kupka. With the intellectual potential of children gravely constrained, wherein lies the future of our country?

But unless our governments, at all levels, take immediate steps to address hunger and malnutrition, especially in children and pregnant women, our poor indices on maternal and child mortality can only further worsen. Indeed, if concerted and deliberate actions are not taken, millions of Nigerian children will be physically and mentally stunted and their lives devastated by malnutrition.

Political commitment is therefore necessary to ensure advocacy on the adverse implications of malnutrition and how to avoid its devastating consequences. Partnership with civil society and academic institutions with focus on food and nutrition is also an imperative. But such political commitment is best demonstrated by a tangible increase in resource allocation, with the relevant ministries and agencies doing their bit and a road map to up-scaling nutrition in the public sphere.

Such a road map should consist of clear roles and responsibilities for the various stakeholders, as well as implementable strategies with milestones for mainstreaming nutrition into agriculture, fortifying basic foods with essential minerals or vitamins, mobilising communities for action on growing more beneficial foods, and educating them on the perils of malnutrition. Our governments need to sit up and confront malnutrition with resolute decisiveness if the future of our children is to be secure.