South African Child GaugePERSISTENT inequalities serve as a stark reminder that we have yet to improve the lives of the majority of people in South Africa. Poverty negatively affects all aspects of human development, particularly in the early years, by Andy Dawes, Lizette Berry, Linda Biersteker and Sherri le Mottee.

Close to 60% of children up to nine years old live in households with a monthly income of less than R604 a person. They do not enjoy all the support required for sound development and later success. This has consequences for the overall wellbeing of our society and economy.

Yet the latest research shows that early investment in young children has the potential to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Children’s experiences in the early years play a large role in their long-term wellbeing. They thrive and grow when protected from neglect and harm, and when provided with sound nutrition, healthcare, warm and responsive care and opportunities to learn.

Early child development starts in pregnancy and extends into the ninth year. The first 1,000 days is a period of rapid neurological development and provides a huge opportunity for strong, healthy growth. This is when the foundation for long-term health, learning capacity, emotional wellbeing and social behaviour is laid.

The earlier we invest in these support strategies, the greater the long-term returns, including improved education outcomes, economic growth, responsible citizenship and the effective parenting of future generations.

But young children in South Africa are exposed to multiple risks: poor maternal nutrition; poor antenatal care; foetal development affected by HIV infection and alcohol and drug use; malnutrition; diarrhoeal and respiratory disease; inadequate care and stimulation; exposure to violence at home; child abuse; limited opportunities to get the skills that will equip them for school (only 20% attend a preschool or play group); and poor-quality early education, resulting in high drop-out rates later in their school careers.
Given these influences, it is unsurprising that we have high youth unemployment, crime and violence and that the poverty cycle continues. The origin lies in the early years.
We have sound policies in place to benefit young children, and the Treasury allocates funds for maternal and child health, child support grants and the subsidisation of crèches and preschools for poor children. But child poverty will not disappear soon, so we need to ensure these children access essential services to help them develop:

  • Child support grants are a vital investment in human capital. Those who have it before the age of two are less likely to be malnourished, and will have better health and school outcomes at age 10. At present, 6.6-million poor children younger than 10 benefit, but those younger than three have the least access. Urgent action is needed to reach children from birth.
  • Primary health services promote the health and nutrition of mothers and children from pregnancy onward. Access has improved, but quality is highly variable.
  • Maternal mental health is not on the agenda of primary health services. This must change because large numbers of poor mothers are vulnerable to depression and other problems.
  • Parents need guidance on early child development, affectionate care, stimulation and behaviour management.
  • Government services are fragmented and often of poor quality.
  • Investment in early learning programmes for poor children will pay dividends only if they are of sufficient quality. Programmes for preschool children need competent staff, and early learning support needs to reach into homes. The quality of education in grades R-3 also needs improvement.

The government is developing an early childhood development (ECD) policy which will define the ECD service package and make it a public good. Similarly, the re-engineering of primary healthcare opens the door for drawing on community-based health workers as a support mechanism for young children and families. The revision of the Children’s Act is another opportunity to strengthen support systems.

South Africa’s young children cannot afford to wait. Their time is now, and we must make the most of the opportunities to strengthen essential services and improve the life chances of our youngest citizens.

Dawes is with the University of Cape Town. Berry and Biersteker are editors of the South African Child Gauge 2013. Le Mottee is with Ilifa Labantwana.

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