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At a glance: Guatemala

Joint nutrition initiative helps Guatemala’s poorest children

© UNICEF Guatemala/2006/Chew
María Ángela is optimistic that a newly developed food supplement will keep her youngest child well nourished and thus able to fight off disease.

As part of the launch of ‘Progress for Children No. 4: A Report Card on Nutrition’, UNICEF is featuring a series of stories focusing on successful initiatives that can help counter the many threats to children's nutritional status.

EL LIMAR, Guatemala, June 2006 – When her two severely undernourished daughters fell gravely ill, María Ángela Esquivel was forced to take them from her home to the Nutritional Recovery Centre in Jocotán – a three-mile journey through mountain trails – to save them from death.

“I couldn’t give them what they needed,” she explained.

María Ángela is from the Chortí indigenous group, a Mayan community that lives in a remote and undeveloped district far from Guatemala's capital. Now, surrounded by five of her six children with the youngest son, Henry, in her arms, the 27-year-old mother stands in the doorway of her home in the hamlet of El Limar, Camotán municipality.

Camotán is one of the poorest areas of the country, even though only a few miles away a buzz of activity can be heard as wealthy international companies prospect for gold and uranium deposits.

The family’s home is made of wooden boards and a thatched roof, and sits on 2,700 square feet of inhospitable land. Their only income is $3 per year from renting half of the house, and the occasional $2 per day that the husband earns working on neighbouring farms.

“We cannot grow anything on our land. We can’t even have an orchard, because we don’t have anything,” María Ángela said woefully about their lack of resources.

Overwhelming rate of undernutrition

Although Guatemala has made progress in reducing the number of underweight children under five, it still has an overwhelming rate of undernutrition. Twenty-three percent of children under five are underweight, and one in two children under five is stunted, the highest rate in the region and one of the highest in the world.

And children living in the poorest households in Guatemala – children like María Ángela’s six – are three and a half times more likely to be underweight than children living in the richest households.

But now the situation is turning around for María Ángela. She is among a group of 200 women from El Limar who have been trained by a joint initiative being developed for 2005–2008 by six United Nations agencies, including UNICEF, in cooperation with the government and national organizations. Working through the government’s National Plan for the Reduction of Chronic Malnutrition, the programme’s main goals are:

  • To reduce rates of stunting among children under three
  • To help all children who suffer acute malnutrition (or wasting) to recover
  • And to help at-risk pregnant women increase their weight.

The programme aims to reach 220,000 children and 150,000 expectant mothers from the 83 municipalities in the country (out of a total of 335) with the highest rates of poverty.

A new chance for children

Since the nutrition programme was implemented in July 2005, there have been many successes.

  • A vitamin A- and iron-rich food supplement has been developed for children under three
  • In a different preparation, the same supplement will also be used for pregnant or lactating mothers
  • A nutrition surveillance system will identify populations at nutritional risk
  • Together with national counterparts, the government has also implemented a food and nutrition education project for women in more than 2,000 rural areas.

UNICEF provides technical assistance, develops information and education materials and increases public awareness. The organization also provides iron and folic acid to pregnant mothers and vitamin A to children under five. María Ángela’s group from El Limar has already been trained by the UN joint programme to prepare pre-cooked and nutritionally fortified food they will soon receive.

“I hope that with this food, Henry won’t get sick like the others,” she said, thinking about the near brush with death her two daughters had faced. But now she is optimistic, thanks to this new chance for good nutrition for all her children.



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