Parliament opening: opportunity for nutrition action

It is that time again when our members of Parliament return from recess, refreshed and full of new ideas on how they will contribute to the development of Zambia.
It will be interesting to find out what exactly MPs have in store for nutrition in Zambia. All MPs, as you head back to Parliament, it is important to remember that today, Zambia is experiencing the double burden of malnutrition where under-nutrition (stunting at 40 percent) affects overall growth in childhood and limits the development of full intellectual and physical potential of children.
Over-nutrition, presented as overweight and obesity (23 percent), has equally adverse effects that can lead to non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and various heart conditions, among others.
The nutrition situation in Zambia is alarming and requires action by all stakeholders, especially our politicians. It has therefore, been very encouraging to see MPs’ involvement in the nutrition discourse in the country.
I congratulate those MPs, including our key nutrition champions, who have together spearheaded the formation of the All Party Parliamentary Caucus on Food and Nutrition (APPCON).
Through this food and nutrition caucus, MPs are advocating nutrition legislation and enhancing political will and accountability to address the burden of malnutrition. They are also promoting and helping sensitise other Parliamentarians on the prevailing nutrition dialogue.
In addition, the caucus seeks to facilitate the effective implementation of the national nutrition policy and to provide a forum for inter- party discussions on nutrition matters nationally, regionally and internationally.
While it is noteworthy that these key issues are being addressed through the caucus, one hopes that more MPs will come on board as issues of malnutrition are calling to all of them.
There are urgent issues around legislation that need to be addressed including;
Firstly, to amend the 1967 National Food and Nutrition Act. First attempts to revise this Act date as back as 2007 just after the adoption of the national food and nutrition policy. The process began with two consultative meetings, but later failed to give the country a revised Act. The process was revived in 2014, with extensive consultation among stakeholders. We are now awaiting the Ministry of Health to submit the draft bill to cabinet office before it goes to Parliament where MPs will pass it into law. We have to ensure the NFNC Act is amended to address its weaknesses and gaps. It has to be strengthened to meet with current changes in the nutrition environment which requires the new approach to the fight malnutrition.
Another important task that awaits MPs involves amending laws that conflict and impede the success of Government’s own program. For example, the government has developed the National 1000 Most Critical Days Programme (MCDP) which encourages exclusive breastfeeding for six months as one of the key priority interventions.
Exclusive breastfeeding is the only way of providing safe, free, ideal food for healthy growth and development of new-born babies. Breast milk is the natural first food for babies, it provides all the energy and nutrients that infants need in the first six months of life, it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one third during the second year of life.
Currently, Zambia has two laws for maternity protection: (1) the Employment Act CAP 268 and (2) statutory instruments (SI) 56 and 57 of 2008.  The employment act provides for 90 days maternity leave for workers in formal employment while the SI provides 120 days for vulnerable workers who have no collective agreement or not unionised.
If indeed we are going to achieve higher breastfeeding rates in Zambia, we must ensure adequate leave.  Given that paid work is central to the lives of all men and women, protecting women’s employment and economic security during maternity are vital elements for safe pregnancies, healthy mothers and newborns.
Government, therefore, needs to promote laws and mechanisms that enhance implementation of maternity protection in Zambia.
The two categories of maternity leave of 90 and 120 days are not adequate to allow women to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of a child’s life in line with the scaling up nutrition program that the government is implementing. MPs can support enacting of laws on maternity leave that support exclusive breastfeeding.
Lastly, I draw members of Parliament’s attention to the Food and Drug Regulations Act which encompass the code of marketing of breast milk substitutes and has a number of inherent weaknesses that have resulted in flouting the regulations.
This puts at risk the promotion, support and protection of breastfeeding. It is encouraging to note that this Act is under the process of repeal and, in the final stage, will be taken before Parliament for deliberations. I urge all MPs to support the process expeditiously to ensure timely enactment of the bill.
Nutrition improvement involves politics, MPs you have a larger stake!
The author is a civil society advocate for good nutrition and country coordinator for Zambia Civil Society Scaling Up Nutrition Alliance (CSO-SUN).

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