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January 20, 2019

Save the brains of our children

A file photo of First Lady Margaret Kenyatta playing with babies at the Imani Childrens Home, Kayole. /PSCU
A file photo of First Lady Margaret Kenyatta playing with babies at the Imani Childrens Home, Kayole. /PSCU

The Bible in Psalms 127:3 says, “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” And in the words of Nelson Mandela, “Children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation.” But the state of children globally is dire.

According to the World Bank and Unicef, children are more than twice as likely as adults to live in extreme poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa has both the highest rates of children living in extreme poverty as well as the world’s extremely poor children.

Care, a major humanitarian agency, estimates that one billion children in the world lack the basic necessities of life such as food, healthcare, clean water and shelter.

Globally undernutrition is responsible for about 3.5 million deaths in children under the age of five. It accounts for 35 per cent of the disease burden for children under the age of five. Studies have shown that chronically malnourished children face lifelong reduced cognitive capacity, low retention and completion in school and reduced productivity and lifetime earnings.

The just-released Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey reveals that about 34 per cent of households with children were poor. Moreover, the survey also reveals that about 42 per cent of Kenya’s children below 17 years of age are poor. Similarly, an analysis of food poverty reveals that about 36 per cent of children below 17 were food poor.

Another report, Child Poverty in Kenya, reveals that more than half of children under the age of five lack access to sanitation and proper housing. Another 43 per cent of children under the age of five don’t have access to clean water and 33 per cent are deprived of nutrition.

A report by Action Against Hunger in 2017 revealed that malnutrition had reached alarming rates in Turkana, West Pokot, Mandera and Samburu. Overall poverty in these counties ranged between 57 and 79 per cent. Despite government-funded cash transfers, the majority of households in these counties are not able to meet daily food requirements.

The tragedy is that children living in poor households and staggered by hunger and chronic malnutrition are least likely to take advantage of or benefit from public investments in education owing to cognitive impairment. Cognitive impairment is associated with poor school performance, which in turn is linked low individual earnings and intergenerational poverty.

No amount of expansion and improved education access, from early childhood to technical and vocational education, can guarantee quality of education and individual productivity.

Our efforts to save the brains of our children and harness their potential must begin with the unborn, the newborn and infants, ensuring that we secure their first 1,000 days.

We must act now. Our children are our future. It is a real shame that in the age of vast technological and scientific advancement millions of children should suffer from lack of healthcare, inadequate nutrition, poor quality education, and remain vulnerable to poverty, and a squalid environment.

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