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A mother and her children in the 1999 East Timor crisis.








At the St. Francis Hospital in Ifakara, in the United Republic of Tanzania, a woman sits by the bedside of her 16-month-old son, who is severely ill with malaria.







When poverty engulfs a family, the youngest are the most affected and most vulnerable.

A necessary choice

Attention to the youngest children is most needed where it is most difficult to guarantee — in countries gripped by intractable poverty, violence and devastating epidemics, where parents’ hopes and dreams for their children are seriously countered by the realities of life. With the global economy booming, the majority of children still live in poverty. While the world embraces the hope of peace, profit-driven conflicts and ethnic battles erupt, risking the lives and psyches of children. And as HIV/AIDS destroys families, children are left to fend for themselves.

Parents and caregivers struggle for their children’s future every day, seemingly every minute. As they deal with the crises and stresses of their lives, too often they have little energy left for their infants and toddlers. The rights of young children to survive, grow and develop are threatened when the adults in their lives are exhausted.

But these obstacles, while looming large, are not impossible to overcome, as people find and create ways of caring for their children.

In Tanzania, Febronia, a 35-year-old woman, has given birth to seven children. Four have survived: Martha, 10, Angela, 8, Colman, 6, and Grace, 9 months. Two sons died at age 7, one from yellow fever and the other from an unknown cause. Another child, born prematurely, died shortly after birth. Her husband, Damas, 42, sporadically works at a coffee plantation and the family survives on a cash income of about 80,000 shillings a year ($125).

Febronia and her family live in a shanty made of wood, mud and tin. The area around the house is thick with red mud that crusts on the shoeless feet of the mother, father and their four children. Spending an hour each day fetching water from a stream about 3 kilometres away from her home, Febronia worries about leaving her young children alone at home. But what worries her most is being away from the baby for stretches of three hours or longer. While Febronia collects grass for the family’s small herd of cows, Grace is left with Febronia’s eight-year-old daughter after she returns from her half-day of school.

Like many mothers in many countries, Febronia spends each day from dawn to dusk struggling to feed and protect her children, with few resources and little support. She begins her day at 6 a.m. preparing porridge for her family. Besides collecting grass for the cows and water and food for the family, Febronia searches for firewood for cooking. Each day, she takes her small children to bathe in the stream. During the rainy season she tries in vain to keep them clean. Like many in the community, the family does not have a permanent latrine, so the muddy water that swirls past their hut is mixed with faeces.

From morning to night, Febronia’s every waking moment is spent in the service of others. Her tasks are endless. Hours on end, Febronia, a sturdy woman with close-cropped hair, can be seen walking, posture-perfect, carrying heavy loads on her head. Once back home, she cooks, cleans and cares for her family. She works in their small vegetable garden. In between chores, she breastfeeds her baby. After the day’s work is done and the last child is bedded down for the night, she says her prayers and goes to sleep.

Like millions of women worldwide, Febronia is unsafe in her home. She is afraid of her husband, who she says drinks too much alcohol. Sometimes he punches and kicks her.

The seeds of male privilege and female servitude have already been planted in Febronia’s family. While her mother works in the fields, Angela, the shy eight-year-old who still sucks her thumb, takes care of the baby. When 10-year-old Martha with the furrowed brow and pensive eyes returns from school, she washes dishes, helps cut grass for the cows and works in the garden. And what does Febronia’s son do while the girls are working? Colman, a boy with a cherubic face and an impish smile, plays in the mud and climbs trees.

Like 1.1 billion people worldwide, Febronia lacks access to clean water. After her daily trek for water, she must boil it to protect her children from cholera and other water-borne diseases. The family, like 2.3 billion adults worldwide, does not have access to a decent latrine. Without clean water and a permanent latrine, maintaining good hygiene is yet another hardship for Febronia and her family. They risk diarrhoeal and other diseases, including trachoma, an eye infection that is easily spread among children and their mothers and which, with repeated occurrences, eventually leads to blindness.

Although the family has a small vegetable garden and a couple of cows, poverty robs the family of adequate nutrition. The three oldest children show signs of being malnourished, with patches of bald spots on their heads. The eldest child, Martha, has sunken eyes with deeply dark, puffy circles underneath.

The children are not the only ones: in this village of 2,448 people there are 10 licensed bars but no child-feeding centres since 1995. Here, children without day care are often without food for stretches, in some cases for as long as eight hours.

While all but the infant have completed their immunizations against the six major childhood killer diseases, Febronia and Damas have watched three of their children die. A health worker visits their home each week, and there is a missionary hospital less than a kilometre from the village. But Damas bemoans, “The hospital is there, but without money, you will die on its doorstep.”

Ten-year-old Martha is in the second grade of primary school, and the eight-year-old and six-year-old are involved in pre-school for two hours each morning. The parents recognize the benefits of pre-school, boasting that the children can count, sing and tell stories. But Damas, a gaunt man in oversized clothes, fears that he will not be able to afford to keep his children in school. When he was a child, education in Tanzania was free, he says, and it provided him with lunch. Today, there are fees for books and uniforms, and lunch must be brought from home. Damas believes that education will provide a better future for his children, but without money their chances are lost.


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