VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka
WHEN Blessing Zulu went to prison, she went with her two-months-old breastfeeding son, Owen.
This was because there was no close relative to look after her baby while she served her five-year sentence.
“Being in prison with a child is the most difficult part of anyone’s life, this is because you are not able to give your child the kind of life you planned.
“There is no variety of food in prison other than porridge, nshima with beans and Kapenta,” she adds.
Two years after his mother was released from prison, six-year-old Owen has the appearance of a four-year-old due to stunted growth.
Owen’s case is just one of the many stories told in Zambia as the country is one of the 22 African countries with the highest burden of malnutrition in children under the age of five.
According to the 2014 Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) State of the World Insecurity Report, Zambia has the highest prevalence of undernourishment in Africa.
In fact, globally-the report ranks the country second worst at 48.3 percent.
Statistics for 2014 to 2016 by FAO, International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and World Food Programme (WFP) ranks Zambia as having 45 percent of undernourished children.
The rates of undernourishment are similar with those produced by Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI), Central Statistical Office survey, IFPRI Hunger Index and Zambia Demographic Health Survey (ZDHS).
The ZDHS for 2013-2014, has also revealed that 40 percent of children under the age of five were stunted making Zambia’s malnutrition levels among the highest in the world.
While the immediate visible effects of under-nutrition are diseases, the long term ramifications are frightening as they could include impaired cognitive development.
According to research, early malnutrition weakens children’s physical and cognitive potential making it costly for their future health condition, educational attainment and socio-economic success.
Experts state that proper nutrition is a basic requirement for any life and plays an important role in promoting health and preventing under-nutrition and malnutrition in a human beings.
“Consuming nutritious food helps children and teens grow, do well academically and feel good about themselves,” says Zambia coordinator of the Civil Society Organisation for Scaling up Nutrition (CSO-SUN) Scot Kaluba.
He notes that good nutrition helps with mental development and physical growth of a child especially in the first two years.
For this reason, CSO-SUN, a movement of civil society organisations working together, was formed to ensure issues of nutrition are given attention.
The emphasis is placed on understanding that how a child eats has a striking impact on their health throughout adolescence and adulthood.
But for circumstantial children, whose mothers has been slapped with a custodial sentence like Owen, having a balanced diet is a far-fetched dream.
Although, Article 56 of the Prisons Act of the Laws of Zambia, on admission of infant child with woman prisoner states; ‘Subject to such conditions as may be specified by the Commissioner, the infant child of a woman prisoner may be received into prison with its mother and may be supplied with clothing and necessities at the public expense’, there are no special conditions in terms of food rations and diet.
Whereas necessities could imply some special treatment depending on one’s interpretation of the law, the 2013 Zambia Human Rights Commission report reveals there is no special diet for circumstantial children.
Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf)’s assessment conducted on the living conditions on the right to health for prisoners and circumstantial children indicates that the Prison’s Act provides nutritional and dietary needs for prisoners and children in detention with certain nutritional value at regular interval every day.
Inmates are entitled to receive three meals per day comprising breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, the report reveals this is not the situation in most facilities. Even when the food can provide the required nutritional content, the method of cooking compromises the quality.
The implication of this revelation is that the right to adequate food as formally recognised by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is abrogated, a concern raised by CSO-SUN.
“The food given to inmates may not be sufficient and nutritionally adequate for children who share with their mothers,” says Mr Kaluba.
He believes that regardless of the circumstances children find themselves in, they are entitled to good nutrition.
However, the Zambia Correctional Service (ZCS) public relations officer Maggie Nawa says the service provides circumstantial children with baby porridge and milk and are supplemented by stakeholders like the church and other non-governmental organisations.
While Zambia struggles to meet the nutritional needs of children especially those living with their parents in prison, it is a signatory to the World Health Assembly international targets to tackle malnutrition by 2025 by 40 percent.
Additionally, the Sustainable Development Goals agenda places a further obligation of ending malnutrition and under nutrition by 2030.
So, at the current rate, is Zambia set to meet the target?
National Food and Nutrition Commission (NFNC) nutritionist, Belinda Tembo answers in the affirmative.
Ms Tembo says the commission, in collaboration with line ministries have since 2014 been implementing the 1, 000 days programme in 14 districts.
She says the first 1,000 days – 270 of nine months pregnancy plus the first two years are the most critical days in the life of a child, thus, the call to bridge the gap by giving children improved complementary foods.
She says a child who does not receive the nutrition required is at risk of stunted growth and physical development like what happened to Owen who is now underdeveloped.
“Stunting is the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition,” Ms Tembo said.
This programme, however has not targeted circumstantial children like Owen, hence the push by Prisons Care and Counselling Association (PRISCCA) for Government to recognise circumstantial children and set allocation in the national budget to meet their needs.
PRISCCA executive director, Godfrey Malembeka is confident that the law would be changed as the Prisons Act is under review.
HRC legal counsel Mwenda Mwiba says circumstantial children have special needs that should be provided for by Government.
With at least US$25 billion estimated to be lost in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to stunting in Africa, it is time Zambia wakes up from slumber and set herself apart by fighting under nutrition with the mighty force it deserves especially among circumstantial children.