At first glance, a boy we will call Stephano appears three years old, but his health passport shows that he is almost five years old. His mother corroborates this information though he is stunted at 98 centimetres tall and weighs 15 kilogrammes only. His height and weight are the reasons many would mistake Stephano for a three-year-old.
Stefano is a slow learner. While his pre-school classmates now know the different colours, can count to 20 and sing along the alphabet, he can only identify red and blue and count up to five. From the health passport, Stefano has frequented hospitals more due to recurrent sickness.
Her mother does not understand why but cannot afford “a decent meal”.
“I think this affects my son,” she says.
According to the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey of 2015, some 37 in every 100 children are stunted like Stephano.
This means they are too short for their age and have poor health, a sign of acute malnutrition.
Experts say stunting negatively affects brain development, limiting affected individuals from reaching their full intellectual potential and productivity in the world of work.
The lifetime implications of stunting affect the society as well.
Alexander Kalimbira, associate professor of nutrition at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says: “Back in 2012, The Cost of Hunger in Africa, a study commissioned by the African Union in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, showed that Malawi lost an estimated K430 billion in one year alone.”
“This represented a tenth of Malawi’s gross domestic product (GDP). These are the consequences of malnutrition.”
The GDP is eroded by the hidden costs of recurrent illness requiring hospitalisation, repetition in schools by stunted and sick children, low productive time by workers regularly absent to nurse a sick child and reduced work output caused by stunting.
The researchers projected the country saving K197 billion had it halved stunting rates from 47 percent by 2025. This is equivalent to a yearly saving of K15.2 billion—enough to improve roads, farmers access to markets, schools and the energy sector.
Undernutrition and hunger remain big problems in Malawi, costing the economy billions.
According to the Integrated Household Survey 2021, six in 10 people in the country reported being food insecure.
The July 2021 – March 2022 Integrated Food Security Phase Clarification (IPC) Acute Food Insecurity Analysis also revealed that over 1.49 million people are facing hunger again. This represents about eight percent of the population.
But can this be fixed.
Malawi is among 160 countries that ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights during the UN General Assembly on December 16 1966.
The covenant is part of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the right to food as a yardstick for the right to an adequate standard of living.
According to the covenant, this right is realised when “every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”
In Malawi, the National Food Security Policy of 2006 explicitly affirms the right to adequate food—invoking the State’s duty to pass laws aimed at reducing hunger and malnutrition and strengthening food security.
The current seating of Parliament is the best time to make the policy work.
Section 30 of the Constitution recognises access to food as part of the human right to development.
The supreme law obliges the State to “take all necessary measures for the realisation of the right to development”.
However, Pamela Kuwali, the national director of the Civil Society Agriculture Network, is concerned that Malawi continues to face numerous challenges threatening people’s right to food.
She states: “While it looks unacceptable that 37 percent of our children should be undernourished, the future of this country is bleak if we don’t address the food security issues that guarantee people’s right to food.
“[Enacting] the Food and Nutritional Bill is the first step to finding a solution to the challenges.”
The proposed law seeks to effectively guarantee the right to adequate food and nutrition in line with the Constitution and international obligations.
The Bill also responds to the recommendations made by UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food for government to establish a framework law on the right to food to enhance inter-sectorial coordination.
The UN envoy envisages the law enhancing transparency, accountability and inclusiveness as well as non-governmental stakeholders’ involvement in policymaking.
The Bill—which obliges government to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the right to food—stipulates that food must be available, adequate and of good quality in line with the specific needs of specific categories of persons.
It states that the State shall take steps—to the maximum of its available resources—to realise the right to adequate food for all.
This calls for supporting regulations to improve institutional nutrition and diets (including in hospitals, prisons and schools), the quality of food produced by industries to safeguard the county’s population health and other public health interventions meant to guide the overall health and nutrition of all Malawians.
Malawi needs to swiftly enact the framework law on the right to food and nutrition for the effective enjoyment of this constitutional promise.
Regrettably, the Food and Nutrition Bill has been in draft form since 2003.
“This undermines programming and compromises the diffusion of strategic national food resources and support services to the most vulnerable people”, reads the Civil Society Coalition on the Right to Food position paper.
The campaigners call on the current sitting of Parliament to deliberate the Bill.
“When the framework law on the right to food is in place, the government would have the leverage to monitor accountability in terms of allocation of resources, strategise on necessary institutional arrangements and coordination mechanisms and timely provide access to legal recourse and redress on reported violations,” reads the paper.
Section 13 (b) of the Constitution stipulates that the State shall actively promote the welfare and development of the people of Malawi by progressively adopting and implementing policies and legislation aimed at achieving a number of goals, “including adequate nutrition for all in order to promote good health and self-sufficiency”.
Why pass the Bill?
The civil society coalition says tabling the Bill in the current sitting “will provide an opportunity for the Legislature to judiciously deliberate and reflect on the provisions of the draft law, propose improvements to make it complete and recommend its adoption as a framework law for Malawi”.
The “first step to finding a lasting solution” to close gaps restricting the right to food would save the lives of Stefano and many other Malawian children whose chances in life are nipped in the bud due to poor nutrition.
Their future lies in the hands of lawmakers currently sitting in the capital.
Their nod would mark a significant moment in guaranteeing the right to food for everyone.