Small children with a will power of giants
By Gonzalo Arteaga
Juan Carlos López is four years old, but due to chronic malnutrition he has the height of a two-and-a-half-years old. Although he is better now, the consequences from malnutrition will affect him for the rest of his life. He will never regain the height or mental development of a healthy child.
About half of all Guatemalan children face chronic malnutrition. All of them suffer from “nutritional dwarfing”, which means that they are shorter than children with normal height and have a diminished mental ability. Despite this, these undernourished children have a strong willpower to survive these and other challenges.
Malnutrition problems in Guatemala are complex. According to Dr Juan Manuel Mejía, house physician at the Nutritional Recovery Centre of Jocotán, the parents’ lack of education and the existing cultural schemes that don’t prioritize adequate childcare are the main causes of malnutrition in Guatemala.
The Director of the Health Centre of Jocotán, Dr Javier Crocker, believes malnutrition is not new and has been there for many years. According to Crocker, the problem has been dragging on from the time of the conquest, 500 years ago, when Spaniards stripped indigenous populations of productive agricultural lands; but he also recognizes this is a multifaceted issue with roots in the environment, such as in the case of deforestation, and also in education and production, such as in the case of a lack of roads to markets, access to credit, political will and lack of an adequate legal framework.
According to the analysis of the UN system, the problems of Guatemala come from a stagnant economy with a high concentration of wealth; a social and cultural system that discriminates against indigenous peoples and women; a weak rule of law; and the limited impact of public policies.
But for thousands of undernourished children in Guatemala who try to survive, these analysis are too far away. And although most of them will never regain their normal height-for-age, they will always show a willpower of giants to get ahead. Francisca Torres, the mother of Juan Carlos and his three brothers, who are 7, 5 and 2 years old, is well aware of this willpower, whose source is an internal strength.
UNICEF, in close cooperation with the Government and the UN System, is working to change this reality. Together, they work to implement the National Plan for the Reduction of Chronic Malnutrition, to which UNICEF provides technical assistance, training for mothers, Vitamin A supplements, nutritional surveillance, breastfeeding advocacy, supplementary feeding and help to strengthen governmental entities in charge of food and nutritional security.
Juan Carlos was able to recover from chronic malnutrition at the Nutritional Recovery Centre of Jocotán, where he stayed for more than 30 days getting specialized care. He is back at home with his family, which is hoping that the corn crop, their only sustenance, won’t fail this year due to the drought currently affecting the Chortí region.