17 December 2013

Uganda: Hungry Children Cannot Learn

On Friday last week, Uwezo launched their 2012 annual learning assessment report for Uganda, titled, "Are Our Children Leaning?"

Uwezo is engaged in monitoring basic literacy and numeracy levels of children aged five to 16 years across at least 50 per cent of the districts in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda through a household-based survey.

The survey process and the findings aim to make parents, students, local communities and the public at large more aware of the actual levels of children's' capabilities in reading, writing and arithmetic.

The 2012 report covered 80 districts, 2,279 public schools and 34,667 households, in which 81,650 children aged six to 16 years were assessed.

Overall, the study found that the massive expansion in school enrolment has not been matched by increase in the quality of education.

One out of ten children in lower primary lacks the required competencies in basic reading and numeracy.

Where local language literacy tests were given, only one out of ten children in primary 3 was able to read and understand Primary level 2 local language stories.

The report further found that 2 out of every 10 children in primary 7 couldn't comprehend a primary 2 level story or complete a division test.

The short and the long of the report is that the national picture is poor and we need to do more about improving education in Uganda.

In our search for solutions, one big area that has been ignored is that of nutrition. Hungry and poorly-fed children cannot learn. And this is why: the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2011 report shows that 38 per cent of children below the age of five are stunted. This prevalence means that about 2.3 million children in Uganda today are chronically malnourished.

Sixteen per cent of children in Uganda are underweight, while 49 per cent are anemic. Children who are undernourished between conception and the age of two are at a high risk of impaired cognitive development, and this in turn adversely affects children's learning abilities.

Poor feeding in the early years - whether through inadequate feeding or, more often, a monotonous, vitamin-poor diet - affects the brain development. Children who were stunted before the age of five are more likely to under-perform in school.

As we look for solutions to improve learning, we must pay serious attention to how and on what Ugandan children are fed. It is a tall order to expect better from children who are eating poorly.

Children that are hungry or poorly fed are more vulnerable to diseases like malaria, diarrheal diseases, acute respiratory infections and anaemia, and this often costs them in terms of school attendance. Children that are hungry or poorly fed, find it hard to concentrate and remain attentive in class and this affects their learning. Poor nutrition is driving a literacy and numeracy crisis in our country.

If we want our children to do better in school, we must address nutrition in the country. Luckily, Uganda has a Nutrition Action Plan (2011-2016) that provides a framework for addressing malnutrition in Uganda.

In terms of strategy, the plan proposes to address malnutrition among young children by implementing intra and inter-sectoral linkages, both private and public, in order to facilitate and improve nutrition advocacy.

It also proposes interventions in the area of production of nutritious foods, nutrition within households, public health and livelihood support. Government also pledges to implement countrywide, cost-effective nutrition program models, which involve behavior change, fortification of common staple foods as well as conducting micronutrient supplemental programs.

In 2010, Parliament had started debating the Food and Nutrition Bill, but there was little forward movement as electioneering for 2011 got in the way. The bill was intended to give effect to Principle XXII in our Constitution that requires the state to take appropriate measures to encourage people to grow and store adequate food, establish national food reserves and encourage and promote proper nutrition through mass education.

We must demand that the current Parliament passes this bill that would help provide a legal framework to address the acute malnutrition challenge that afflicts Ugandan children.

We will not improve education in Uganda only through changing the inputs that go into education - like increasing teachers' salaries, reviewing the curriculum, providing adequate school infrastructure or encouraging greater parent involvement in their children's learning.

If we are serious about improving the education outcomes for the country, if we are serious about our vision of becoming a middle-income country in the next ten years, if we are serious about ensuring that our children are learning, we must address malnutrition, which is one of the major impediments to learning.

Twitter: @asiimwe4justice

The author is a civil society activist.

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