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Many Ghanaian children under the age of five suffer the irreversible effects of malnutrition in their critical first 1,000 days of life. This is the time in children’s lives that determines their health as adults, their ability to learn in school and to perform at a future job.
Over a quarter of children under the age of five in Ghana suffer chronic malnutrition. These children will never reach their full potential in physical or intellectual milestones. This is not a new pattern. Nearly 40 percent of Ghanaian adults grappled with stunted growth as children.
Government statistics about child malnutrition and stunting, data by UNICEF, WHO, the World Food Programme, and the Global Nutrition Report, have compelled little action to improve the situation. This crisis remains an abstract issue of statistical figures to which most of the world turns a blind eye.
But malnutrition is a burden for society as a whole and the effects of childhood malnutrition ripple through the social layers of the affected country.
Journalist Roger Thurow has discussed how child malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of life is driving up healthcare costs and creating chaos in the healthcare system, hindering workforce productivity, and straining education institutions.
A recent report calculated that in 2012 the Ghanaian economy lost over two billion dollars as a result of the impact of malnutrition on Ghanaian children. This loss amounted to 6.4 percent of the country’s GDP.
Child malnutrition in Ghana also disempowers women and destroys the social fabric of communities. Child malnutrition is perceived as a stigma in small communities – mothers hide their malnourished children from the community; there is a sense of embarrassment. Mothers are also alone in caring for children, which disempowers them economically and socially.
As a result, there are high levels of social conflict among women in these communities – “Your child is fed and goes to school, but mine is malnourished and we cannot afford school,” the mothers debate. The social fabric of these small communities break down, and there is a lack of organised women’s support networks to help each other.
Kate Afful, 40 is at home with her mother telling the story of how one of her daughters died at age two. Another one of her six children died at birth. She worked as a fishmonger for her husband until his death about 10 years ago. Ever since, she struggles to find work and take care of her remaining four children. Her children are malnourished and often get sick. They only eat ‘banku’, a fermented corn and cassava dough. ‘God took my two-year-old daughter,’ Afful says. ‘She was not feeling well so I put her to bed. Later that evening, there was a bad storm. The sky was loud and angry. I heard an explosion in the clouds. When I went to check on my baby, she was dead. I believe the thunder killed my baby.’
Ama is in her 20s. She lives with her two children and her husband in the fishing village of Nyanyano. Her husband is a fisherman, and she works selling fried food on the street. Her two children are both malnourished, and her oldest child has suffered from an eye infection for two years without medical treatment. ‘A lot of children die in this village,’ Ama says. ‘People talk about my children being sick and malnourished, but I don’t care what they say. There is nothing I can do because I can’t afford to take my children to the hospital or to give them the food supplements the nurses recommend.’
Hannah Abekah, 23 sits at her home, surrounded by the yellow buckets of rainwater she collected the night before. Hannah never attended school and started working at a very early age as a fishmonger. She is married to a fisherman, and they have two young children who suffer from malnutrition. Her husband is often away for weeks. ‘My kitchen is empty. I have no food,’ Abekah says. ‘My children don’t even eat the little food I give them. I don’t know about malnutrition. I just pray my children become great people.’
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