Nearly one in every two children under five is malnourished. But while almost half of families struggle to feed themselves, most of the campaign talk for the country’s elections next month revolves around organised crime and violence. With murder rates soaring as drugs cartels become more active in the region, crime dominates the news.
UNICEF’s nutrition officer in Guatemala told AlertNet that unlike crime, malnutrition is not generally seen as a major problem. Some people are simply unaware of its effects, even though acute or chronic malnutrition is one of the leading causes of death among under-fives. With many Guatemalans naturally short, the UNICEF spokeswoman explains “people don’t realise that having a low height, or stunting, is caused by chronic malnutrition”. Rather worryingly, she adds “people think it’s normal that a child dies before their first birthday”.
Earlier this year, Oxfam hoped to raise awareness about the desperate food situation in the country as part of its ‘Grow’ campaign. The charity highlighted how the growing cost of staple foods is hitting the poor in Guatemala, who already spend 70 per cent of their income on food. The problem has been exacerbated by the use of Guatemala’s land for export crops such as palm oil. This means staples such as corn and soya are increasingly imported and poor families suffer when the price of these imports rises.
But as UNICEF points out, the problem is not only a lack of food. Among some of Guatemala’s indigenous communities, high malnutrition rates among children also result from a lack of knowledge about the right foods. For example, many women are unaware of the importance of breast feeding. Only half of infants under six months are exclusively breast fed and in some areas, babies are even fed on water and rice from an early age, because mothers believe this is the best thing to do.
Charities working in Guatemala are calling on any new government to introduce policies which will start to address the huge issue of malnutrition. Even if politicians are unwilling to tackle the country’s entrenched problems, such as unequal land distribution and rural reforms, investment in better education and co-ordination with international aid agencies would go some way to improving the health of Guatemala’s children.