By Marecia Damons• 19 March 2021
First published by GroundUp.
A recent study looking at the mental health and nutrition security among pregnant women in the Cape Metro during the Covid-19 pandemic found that many of the participants went without food.
Of the 2,618 participants in the SMS survey, 39% said that they had gone to bed hungry at least once in the seven nights prior to participating in the study.
The study also found that high levels of hunger increased the likelihood of women reporting symptoms of poor mental health.
Activists are now calling for the government to extend the existing Child Support Grant to include pregnant women in need.
Pregnant women living in disadvantaged communities in the Western Cape’s Cape Metro experienced high levels of hunger in the months after the national lockdown was imposed.
This is according to a study done in October 2020 which looked at mental health and nutrition security among pregnant women in the Cape Metro during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Optimal physical and brain development of the foetus depends on sustained access to both macro and micronutrients that are necessary to support the healthy growth and development of the unborn child. Unfortunately, women in South Africa struggle to meet the basic nutritional requirements necessary to ensure a healthy pregnancy,” said Dr Kopano Matlwa Mabaso of Grow Great Campaign.
She was speaking at a webinar on Thursday hosted by maternal health organisation, Grow Great and Stellenbosch University (SU), to discuss the findings of their maternal support study.
The webinar was joined by the Institute for Life Course Health Research, Embrace Movement for Mothers and Violence Protection Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), who are calling for a maternal support grant.
According to Dr Mabaso, pregnant women are especially vulnerable to unemployment “at a time when they are facing increased financial pressures from pregnancy-related health care, nutrition and transport costs and these have significant effects on maternal and child health”.
The study was conducted through telephonic and SMS surveys, and included the results of pregnant women from Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Gugulethu, Bonteheuwel, Manenberg, Langa, Hanover Park, Phillipi, Ilitha Park, Heideveld, Samora Machel, Mfuleni, Crossroads, Joe Slovo, Athlone and Grabouw. The women were recruited into the study at antenatal clinic appointments.
Of the 2,618 participants in the SMS survey, 39% reported going to bed hungry at least once in the seven nights prior to participating in the study. From this group, 13% went to bed hungry once that week, 34% on two occasions, and 23% on three occasions.
A total of 584 telephonic interviews were conducted following the SMS surveys with pregnant mothers. These in-depth telephonic interviews found similar trends to the SMS survey.
Over a third of participants (35%) reported that they had gone to bed hungry at least once in the seven nights prior to the interview. Of this group, 27% reported going hungry only once that past week, 44% reported going hungry on two occasions, and 21% on three occasions.
The high levels of hunger were found to increase the likelihood of women reporting having poor mental health, the report read.
In the SMS survey, women were asked questions whether they had experienced feeling down, depressed or hopeless, and had little interest or pleasure in doing things.
According to the report, participants who said they had gone to bed hungry at least once in the week prior to participating in the study were almost three times more likely to screen positive on both of the mental health screening questions posed in the SMS survey.
“These high levels of hunger occurred against a backdrop of high levels of unemployment: while Statistics South Africa identified 42% unemployment nationally (using the expanded definition of unemployment), almost double this proportion of the sample group reported being unemployed or not having earned money in the prior month (71%),” the report read.
A further 83% had no paid work that they planned to return to the following month. According to the report, being unemployed increased the likelihood of study participants reporting maternal and child hunger by 30% and 51%, respectively.
“We risk facing a crisis, with women and children being amongst those who are worst affected,” said Koketso Moeti of advocacy organisation Amandla.mobi.
“It is unjust that pregnant women in South Africa have to choose between other necessities and their basic well-being,” she added.
The Call for a Maternity Support Grant
The organisations have also called on the government to extend the existing Child Support Grant by introducing a maternal support grant.
“South Africa offers a child support grant but families only qualify for this once their child is born - excluding pregnant women from benefiting,” said Dr Mabaso of Grow Great.
“What is clear from these findings is the urgent and critical need for support strategies for poor and vulnerable pregnant women whose needs have become increasingly more apparent during the pandemic,” she said.
Researcher at Stellenbosch University, Dr Christina Laurenzi said, “The right to a pregnancy supported by adequate nutrition and mental health is out of reach for many pregnant women in South Africa, especially in the wake of the lockdown and the pandemic’s ongoing economic and social impact.”
Laurenzi said that the report’s findings should be used to “build evidence and momentum” to bring the maternal support grant to existence.
You can also watch the animated summary of the study's findings: