The food predicament in Kenya: Children at the forefront of the hunger catastrophe


By Terry Moraa

For most children, lunchtime is an hour to play while having a break partaking something to sustain their stomachs for the next lesson. However, Moses Jackson in Kavunzoni Primary School in Ganze, Kilifi County, can barely keep up in class due to hunger.[i] He falls asleep during class time and tears threaten to fall from the tip of his eyes as he sadly narrates that he has neither had breakfast nor supper.[ii] Moses is one of the millions of children in Kenya who suffer due to this calamity yet they are to keep up with the school calendar just like other children.[iii]

No child should go to bed hungry, be unable to afford to go to school or struggle to gain access to clean water. The Constitution of Kenya accords every child the right to basic nutrition, shelter and health care.[iv] The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires state parties to combat disease and malnutrition, through inter alia, the application of readily available technology, the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution, including taking measures within the framework of primary health care.[v] Kenya is a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and as such should make more concerted efforts like strengthening the School Meals Programme to ensure our children are provided with adequate nutritious food. The impact of drought however continues to aggravate the pre-existing vulnerabilities across the country despite the constitutional rights of every child.

The war in Ukraine and climate change cycles are having cruel effects on the Horn of Africa in regards to malnutrition as food production supply lines are disrupted. This is preventing children from going to school, getting basic health care, a meal and access to water.

More than four million people live in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) of Northern and Eastern Kenya. An estimated 942,000 children aged under the age of five are acutely malnourished and in need of treatment.[vi] Children are forced to move in search of water and pasture resulting in the displacement and separation from their families. The disruption of local markets further limits the access to income and food among these communities.

Poor households are increasingly dependent on non-agricultural waged labour opportunities, firewood and charcoal sales, and petty trade to bridge income deficits and support market purchases. Because of these, malnutrition, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality rates among children remain high and could worsen if no immediate humanitarian assistance is provided.

While resilience-building efforts across the country have made some vital advancement, our children continue grappling with intense food insecurity. Communities have been hit by increasingly frequent and severe climate shocks and droughts, making it harder for families to recover between shocks. Children in the ASALs continue to face hindrances in access to classrooms due to food insecurity encompassing drought, communal conflicts and inadequacy of school models concerning pastoralist lifestyle, high malnutrition and stunting tolls. Almost one million children under the age of five and 115,725 pregnant and lactating women are acutely malnourished in Kenya.[vii]

To survive, households are adopting negative coping strategies that have threatening and often irremediable costs for children. They range from reduced food intake, which causes malnutrition, withdrawing children from school in order to save money on school fees, sending children to work, to selling off productive assets like livestock, household items or land, sending children out to work and marrying girls off early and migrating. Child labour and dropout incidents have also been on the rise as the children take up the need to work in order to fend for themselves and for survival. During such times of drought, child protection unit services, mental health psychological support and other vital services remain scarce throughout the affected areas and these glaring gaps mean that many cases like sexual-based violence go unreported and children are unable to seek care and recover from violence and abuse.

In 2011, the National Food and Security Policy was developed to aid the actualisation of the right to food as stipulated in our 2010 Constitution and achieve goals including achieving good nutrition for the optimum health of all Kenyans. Fast forward to 2014, the Food Security Bill whose one of the intentions was to give effect to Article 53(1) (c) was tabled in Parliament and is yet to be enacted into law.[viii] The prolongation of enactment of the proposed law makes the implementation of the right to food unclear.

Drought, unlike other hazards, requires early intervention and activation of contingency plans from normal to alert and deployment of resources to such responses will create a huge positive impact. There needs to be progressive scaling up of drought interventions like immediate resilience mechanisms and provision of relief foods to the affected areas as soon as there is alert of drought to save the lives of our children and to achieve durable outcomes to food insecurity.

The supply of ready-to-use therapeutic feeds should be increased in the affected areas of drought where there are high numbers of malnourished children allowing them to recover and to protect the lactating mothers whose newborns stand the risk of malnutrition. Moreover, integrated medical and nutrition outreaches to affected areas should be increased across the country. Targeting vulnerable households of children under the age of 5, lactating and expectant mothers need to be prioritised in order to combat malnutrition, child stunting and child wasting.

An increase in the cash transfer programme from different agencies from the usual Ksh 2700-3000 per month per household to a higher value as that value has been eroded and one struggles with what and what not to purchase due to the increased cost of living. This will have some sort of cushion for the households. This will go hand in hand with the establishment of active local markets among the affected areas.

The Government should oversee the activation of the unexplored aquifer in Turkana for a credible drought mitigation process.[ix] Long-term sustainable solutions like drilling boreholes and installing irrigation schemes should also be looked into.

Promotion of water-efficient crop species for areas that do marginal farming and encouraging the communities in the affected areas to employ their norms like pastoralism as the first entry points as adjustments and to diversify their livelihood mechanisms like commercialisation and this would see a positive change in regard to the persistent drought.

All these suggested solutions will deliberately reorganise allocations in a manner that gives fast response to drought-stricken areas a priority and to save lives and livelihoods of our children who are the future face of the country.

Together, let us save our children!

[i] 'Tears of hunger-families face the wrath of drought on Ganze', Kilifi, Citizen TV Kenya, 16 October 2022, 1:51 - 2:35 —<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgTAjaE-WAY>on 26 January 2023.

[ii] ;Tears of hunger-families face the wrath of drought on Ganze', Kilifi, Citizen TV Kenya, 16 October 2022, 1:51 - 2:35 —<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgTAjaE-WAY>on 26 January 2023.

[iii] 'Tears of hunger-families face the wrath of drought on Ganze', Kilifi, Citizen TV Kenya, 16 October 2022, 1:51 - 2:35 —<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgTAjaE-WAY>on 26 January 2023.

[iv] Constitution of Kenya (2010), Article 53(c).

[v] Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, 1577 UNTS 3, Article 24(2) (c).

[vi] <https://www.wfp.org/stories/horn-africa-drought-means-hunger-and-malnutrition-people-clinic-kenya >on 26 January 2023.

[vii]<https://www.care-international.org/news/food-insecurity-horn-africa-worsening-situation-requires-immediate-action>on 26 January 2023.

[viii] Food Security Bill 2014.

[ix]<https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/bd/news/kenya-abandons-exploration-of-unviable-turkana-water-aquifer-3707270>accessed 29 January 2023.

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