Speaking at the official launch of the Grow Great campaign in Johannesburg, Dr Tshepo Motsepe detailed the socio-economic impediments to achieving zero stunting in South Africa by 2030. These include the perceived sophistication of formula feeding and the stigma associated with public breastfeeding.
The first one-thousand days of a child's life are critical to its growth and overall health. Chronic under-nutrition caused by ignorance and the socio-economic challenges faced by women are the main challenges to achieving zero stunting. Stunting is a condition caused by prolonged undernutrition that affects physical and brain development. It can be identified by children appearing smaller than their age group and is diagnosed by comparing a child's measurements to standardised growth charts.
The Grow Great campaign in South Africa aims to confront these issues in a country where one in four children under the age of five are stunted. At an estimated prevalence rate of 27% among South African children under the age of five, stunting is a national challenge.
In her address, South Africa's First Lady, Dr Tshepo Motsepe, said, "The Grow Great campaign we are launching today is one that seeks to mobilise South Africans from all walks of life to work together and speak with one voice towards the achievement of zero stunting by 2030."
"The campaign tells us that stunting is not an inevitable natural phenomenon divinely predestined for some children on their paths of development. The campaign tells us stunting is merely a disapproving reaction and response of nature to the uneven, unequal and unjust socio-economic conditions under which millions of our compatriots strive to survive."
She went on to elaborate the course of action, saying, "We have to wage a relentless war against ignorance; we have to teach South Africans, female and male, about the basics of pregnancy and the nutritional needs of the foetus; and we have to practically assert our people's right to a clean environment that is not a breeding ground for infectious diseases."
Of course the reality of stunting is linked to socio-economic factors. "We have to ask ourselves deep and uncomfortable questions about our unequal society that stunts the growth of some children. Chronic nutritional deprivation, repeated infections and poor psychosocial stimulation - which all lead to stunting - cannot be understood outside the context of poverty and inequality."
The effort to stop stunting must involve all people at every level of society to be truly successful. "We must support the many mothers and primary care givers. We must break down barriers, including community perceptions and beliefs, limited breastfeeding education, employers and employment spaces that do not enable breastfeeding, the perceived sophistication associated with formula feeding and the stigma associated with public breastfeeding."
To which she asked one of the most pertinent question of our time: "And on this latter point (public breastfeeding), I often wonder, if adults can eat and enjoy their meals in public, why can't babies do the same?"
Children have the right to eat when they are hungry and in need of nourishment, not according to a schedule arbitrarily imposed for the convenience of others. Not every mother has the luxury of owning a breast pump to pump milk for use when on the move with their babies and even for those that do situations arise that keep them out longer than possible, exhausting whatever supply they have with them.
Breastfeeding has been shown to have wide ranging benefits. Shutterstock
Not only is it ridiculous to expect mothers to not breastfeed when their babies are hungry, but few to no spaces are allocated for them to avoid public breastfeeding. Furthermore, not breastfeeding as needed leaves mothers susceptible to breast infection because their breasts have not been emptied in a long time. All this so as not to offend the absurd sensibilities of full-grown adults who do not have the same challenges and can easily avert their eyes or move away.
Dr Tshepo Motsepe concluded by saying, "If our children are stunted, the future of our nation is stunted. We simply cannot continue on this path. We need to change things urgently."