UNICEF-supported programme tackles malnutrition on tea estates in Sri Lanka
By Mervyn Fletcher
NUWARA ELIYA, Sri Lanka, 31 May 2011 - A new day beckons in central Sri Lanka’s tea estates. Mother-of-five and picker of tea, Marystella, is up at 5.30 am to prepare the family’s breakfast in their spartan, tiny house.
She gathers firewood for cooking fuel and prepares the breakfast of fresh rotis using wheat flour, water and a dash of salt. The children look on before changing into their school uniforms and gathering to eat. They add some pulses and tuck in.
This scene of highland Sri Lankan life, amid the verdant rolling hills of the tea-growing estates, masks poor levels of nutrition among children living in these communities.
More than 40 per cent of children under the age of five are stunted in this Sri Lankan region. The problem is a long-term lack of nutritious food. This impairs the children’s ability to learn and results in poor health. Marystella’s five children are among those who are malnourished.
Struggling to afford food
Marystella can pluck up to 20 kilos of tea leaves in a day. She needs to work and earn. Tea picker incomes are low and her family survives on less than $100 a month. They struggle to afford food.
Across the valley, mother-of-three Muthumari is washing clothes. She’s been unwell and unable to work. It’s made a big dent on her meagre household income. Her one-year-old daughter, Dilushika, is underweight and receives supplementary nutritious food courtesy of Sri Lanka’s public health system.
Muthumari says she relies on credit from a village store in order to buy food for her family. Her family’s household income is $100 a month. About 70 per cent of that goes on food, with the remaining money is spent on school and medical expenses.
“We are so poor,” said Muthumari. “Our 12-years-old son wants to go to Colombo to earn money. We don’t know what to do.”
The height and weight of Sri Lankan children is monitored by the public health system. The medical cards of Muthumari’s family indicate her children’s health prospects are not good. It’s a recurring problem. Muthumari is herself malnourished and stunted, and so are her two other children.
The family’s evening meal almost always consists of rice and pulses. They say fruit is no longer affordable.
A new government strategy
The Government of Sri Lanka, with UNICEF support, is trying to tackle the problems of poor diet and malnutrition in the tea estates and across Sri Lanka. UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka Reza Hossaini says there are two areas the partners are working on.
“One is at a household level, ensuring families have knowledge about nutrition and what to feed and what not to feed, and how to distribute food at home,” he says. “At the same time we have to have a strategy where the food is available to the family at an affordable price.”
For children living in this part of Sri Lanka, educating about a good diet and ensuring food is affordable are vital ingredients if the battle against malnutrition is to be won.