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The Faces of Hunger

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Fighting chronic malnutrition among impoverished children in Guatemala

© UNICEF/Gua2009/ThomasNybo
A toddler is weighed at a UNICEF-supported feeding centre, part of a countrywide project that promotes breastfeeding and provides nutritional supplements for malnourished children in Guatemala.

By Thomas Nybo

SANTA LUCIA, Guatemala, 18 February 2009 – Santa Sebastiana Aguilar Pacheco understands the pain of hunger all too well. The 45-year-old woman lives with her elderly mother, her 71-year-old hus-band and two children in a small house with a dirt floor. She earns her livelihood by raising rabbits and cleaning houses, taking home the equivalent of $1 per day.

"I tend to look for whatever food is cheapest because money is scarce," says Ms. Pacheco. "One day we might have a little bit of beans, the next day rice, another day turnips. Sometimes we'll have nothing but turnips for lunch. We don't have any meat. We raise rabbits but we need to sell them, we don't eat them."

Symptoms of poverty are everywhere in the Aguilar Pacheco household. A work boot has a tear that is years old. Exposed electrical wires run along a ceiling beam in the house, posing a serious ha-zard. Ms. Pacheco's mother is blind in one eye because she lacked the health coverage to have it properly treated. Lack of money means lack of food, which has potentially devastating consequences for her children.

Effects of malnutrition

UNICEF Representative in Guatemala Adriano González-Regueral notes that half of the country's children suffer from chronic malnutrition. The problem manifests itself in stunted growth and lowered IQ scores.

"One out of two is the average but in indigenous areas, chronic malnutrition can reach 80 per cent to-tal of children under five years of age," he says.

According to UNICEF data from 2007, Guatemala has the highest percentage of chronically malnour-ished girls and boys in Latin America, and the fourth highest in the world.

© UNICEF/Gua2009/ThomasNybo
A family looks on with relief as a toddler shows healthy weight gain at a Guatemalan feeding centre.

Partnership for aid

UNICEF and five other UN agencies are working with the government, various non-governmental or-ganizations and private corporations to implement a national plan for the reduction of chronic malnutrition in Guatemala. This strategy includes lobbying public officials for legal reforms and the creation of feeding centres to provide vitamins and micronutrients, as well breastfeeding promotion.

The partners have also developed a system to identify populations at risk of malnutrition. The pro-gramme seeks to reach 220,000 children and 150,000 expectant mothers nationwide.

"Guatemala has a very good strategy, a very good programme, to fight and win the battle against chronic malnutrition," says Mr. González-Regueral. "But we need money. We need money from the national budget and from international corporations, but mainly from the national budget."

The best investment for Guatemala

Impoverished families are in desperate need of help. Right now, only a small portion of them are being reached. They're barely surviving, and their children are being swept up in a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

More than half of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty, and around 16 per cent live in extreme poverty. The situation is even worse for indi-genous families like the Pacheco Aguilars, who mainly live in rural areas.

Mr. González-Regueral is clear about UNICEF's goals. "The best investment for Guatemala is inves-ting in children and fighting chronic malnutrition," he says. "That has to be our national priority."



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