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Millions of children in South Africa still don’t have access to healthy meals, because their families can’t afford nutritious food, according to a report published by the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute (CI).

The South African Child Gauge 2018 report highlights the conditions that children are living in across the country — and is a partnership between DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development, University of the Witwatersrand, UNICEF South Africa, and the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation.

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More than 6 million children in South Africa are currently living below the food poverty line, the institute said in a statement provided to Global Citizen.  

“This means that their families cannot even provide the minimum amount of nutrition needed to survive and thrive,” it said. “This is just one of the many challenges faced by families in SA.”

The report — released to coincide with World Children’s Day on November 20 — highlighted an urgent need for families and the state to align their efforts to improve conditions for children. 

“Families are arguably the state’s greatest resource,” reads the report. “The state needs families to reproduce the population, to nurture children, and provide for their needs.”

“But it must enable families to do so by ensuring that the necessary infrastructure and services are in place, are accessible to all, and are of good quality,” it added.

The annual review of the situation of the country’s children also monitors progress towards realising children’s rights, including their wellbeing. 

“This year’s issue is the 13th Child Gauge [report] and it focuses on children at the interface of families and the state,” said the institute.

The report looks specifically at areas where effective collaboration can be sought.

“It also deals with contestation or tension between families and the state, such as where families fail to nurture children in ways that the state requires, or when the state does not fulfil its obligation to provide an enabling environment in which to do so,” added the institute. 

While families have increased access to services in the post-apartheid era, the 2018 Child Gauge urges government to focus attention on improving the capacity and quality of responsive services to families.

“In general, the state recognises the diversity and multi-generational nature of many families, but in practice different departments have divergent views of what a family is (or should be) and who is assumed to bear responsibility for children,” said Katharine Hall, senior researcher at CI and lead editor of the 2018 report.

The report calls on the state to recognise the different ways that families care for children — so policies and programmes could cater for families as they are, rather than what the state thinks they should be.

Co-editor and researcher Zitha Mokomane, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pretoria, explained that one of the reasons that the state has to be flexible in catering for families is the social, economic, and political factors involved.

“‘Extended’ family households account for 36% of all households in South Africa, followed by single-person households (22%) – a household form that is increasing as more adults migrate to cities in search of work,” said Mokomane in a statement.

Mokomane said many migrant adults leave children behind, in the care of family. She added that only 25% of children live in “nuclear families” (a family with two parents and their dependent children), while 62% live in extended family arrangements.

“What the surveys cannot see is the extent to which families are stretched, with family members spread across different households,” she said

Over 7 million children are living in households headed up by a grandparent or great-grandparent, Mokomane added. 

“But this does not mean that biological parents are not present, or that those who are absent do not maintain contact with their children,” she continued. “Many absent parents see their children regularly and help to support them financially even when they live elsewhere.”

Mokomane said although the Child Support Grant (an initiative by the Department of Social Development and the South African Social Security Agency) reaches over 12 million children every month, it is difficult to achieve its main objective as more parents move migrate from place to place.

“When administrative systems struggle to keep up with movement and changing care arrangements, the funds can’t reach a child whom it was designed to follow,” she said.

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