Zimbabwe urged to prioritise children as record poverty causes food shortages

Nyasha Chingono in Harare
Photograph: Aaron Ufumeli/EPA

Poverty has reached unprecedented levels in Zimbabwe, with more than 70% of Zimbabwean children in rural areas living in poverty, a UN study has found.

The report, compiled by Unicef and the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, shows high levels of privation in rural areas, where 76.3% of children live in abject poverty. Statistics seen by the Guardian suggest that almost half of these children do not have enough of the right food to eat.

Humanitarian organisations have warned that if nothing is done to address food security issues in Zimbabwe, child poverty will escalate further.

“In rural areas, all land use areas have [a] high prevalence of poor children, but communal and resettlement areas are slightly worse; urban areas in rural provinces also have high rates of child poverty,” said the report’s authors.

Child poverty is more prevalent in Mashonaland Central, Manicaland and Matabeleland North.

Laylee Moshiri, a Unicef representative in Zimbabwe, urged the country’s government to track child poverty.

“With the economic challenges Zimbabwe has been going through for the past three years, there is a huge risk of erosion of the gains that had been made for children,” she said.

“Unless child poverty is specifically monitored in the country, we risk assuming that there is progress in reducing child poverty when, in reality, a large proportion of the population could be stagnating or worse off, especially children.

“Unicef therefore calls on the government of Zimbabwe to recognise child poverty as a national policy priority and protect children from its most devastating effects throughout its reform agenda.”

A woman pours food aid into a sack at a distribution point for Mafomoti primary school in Zimbabwe’s Mwenezi district. Photograph: Aaron Ufumeli/EPA

Zimbabwe is facing one of the most severe droughts in its history. About 5.5 million people in rural Zimbabwe face starvation.

According to Reuters, Zimbabwe’s agriculture minister, Perrance Shiri, said this week that the country has less than 100,000 tonnes of grain in its strategic reserves. The grain reserve has a 500,000-tonne capacity, but has been run down after a poor harvest. Zimbabwe consumes 80,000 tonnes of maize every month.

The World Food Programme says it needs a further $200m (£152m) to meet hunger needs in the country.

The report’s authors called on the country to adopt policies such as feeding programmes and food aid.

With households fast running out of food, most children of school age are in danger of starvation. Schoolchildren often faint during class, according to humanitarian organisations, heightening calls for food aid in schools.

“Poverty robs children of the things they need most for survival and development, like nutrition, education, health services, water and sanitation,” said Moshiri, who pointed out that 48% of the country’s population is under 18.

“As children grow, the consequences of poverty are compounded, taking an enormous toll on their wellbeing – and their ability to build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.”

Poverty remains a predominantly rural problem, said the report’s authors, who estimated that about 20% of urban children live in poverty.

“This is of great concern to Unicef, and it is our hope that as we come together on agenda 2030, serious consideration is made … to ensure that children do not bear a disproportionate burden of the impact on poverty,” said Moshiri.

Related: Zimbabwe on verge of 'manmade starvation', warns UN envoy

The World Bank estimates that extreme poverty in Zimbabwe has risen over the past year, from 29% in 2018 to 34% in 2019, an increase from 4.7 to 5.7 million people. The bank predicts levels will continue to rise in 2020.

The surge in poverty has been attributed to acute food shortages as a result of the current economic crisis and the crippling effects of the El Niño-induced drought on agricultural productivity.

Hilal Elver, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, last year warned that Zimbabwe was on the verge of manmade starvation, adding that children would be the most affected as guardians fail to provide a balanced diet.

She said the drought had also affected children’s health, with nearly 90% of Zimbabwean infants experiencing malnutrition and stunted growth.