Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth who care for and protect our people. – Nelson Mandela
Early childhood is a crucial period of physical and social-emotional development. In the first years of life, 700 to 1,000 new neural connections are formed every second, shaping the brain’s architecture in a way that influences learning, health and behavior for a lifetime. Poverty negatively impacts this process by bringing multiple stressors and hardships into a child’s life and influencing relationships with caregivers. Poverty directly and indirectly affects a child’s development from birth. This effect can change the future opportunities and trajectory of a child’s life. School readiness is a pivotal milestone for a child to escape poverty.
Poverty is a multidimensional social phenomenon. Over 40% of people live in absolute poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact 28 of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa.
Here are some of the ways poverty impacts a child’s development.
Nutrition, health and sleep
- People in poverty are more likely to suffer from undernourishment and food insecurity.
- Poverty limits access to resources that in turn restricts access to nutritious food.
- Nutrition affects children’s growth and development. Food insecurity and undernourishment disproportionately affects girls than boys.
- Undernutrition also negatively affects sleep patterns. Sleep depravation stunts growth and limits brain functions.
- Many children do not have access to clean water, sufficient food, or basic sanitation. As a result, up to 20% of children in this region are born with or develop a serious disability.
Learning and achievements
- Children from poor households are three times more likely to be out of school than children from rich households. According to UNESCO 22% of African children have never attended primary school or have left school without completing primary education.
- Family income is closely associated with academic achievement.
- Children in poverty experience chronic stress which adversely affects their ability to concentrate and learn.
- Children in poverty may experience cognitive, speech or language delays. Sadly they do not have access to service that identify and assist in these delays.
- Families in poverty have less access to knowledge on developmental milestones and how they can support them.
Social emotional development
- Children who are exposed to stressors linked to poverty are at increased risk of emotional and behavioral problems.
- Children in poverty face increased risk of developmental delays.
Physical environment and opportunities for exploration and movement
- A child’s environment is a determining factor for functional motor skills and a healthy physical development.
- Children living in poverty may have less access to safe outdoor play spaces.
- Children living in high density, low-income housing may have less access to space and other settings that promote motor skill development.
- Children in poverty are more likely to receive low quality childcare. Low quality childcare decreases opportunities for the types of physically active play and exploration necessary for healthy development.
- Children living in poverty have less access to recreational opportunities and sports programming.
Children in poverty are already disadvantaged before starting school. This must be addressed to ensure a brighter future for Africa. Addressing the root cause of poverty is crucial in ensuring proper childhood development. This issue requires coordinated intervention on regional, national and local levels by all stakeholders. National governments must provide support parents and caregivers through welfare programs. Local NGOs play an impactful role in providing community awareness campaigns on nutrition and health to mitigate the effects of poverty on child development.