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Young people in Guatemala serving among their country’s poor

In Guatemala, half of under-fives suffer from chronic malnutrition, which is one of the leading causes of death and the government is now sponsoring an initiative among its young to tackle this blight on the nation’s health.

Guatemalans aged 18-24 years are being recruited into a new programme as part of their national service. Called ‘Jóvenes centinelas contra la desnutrición’ or ‘Young sentries against malnutrition’, the youth will work in poor communities, spending some of their service hours helping those in extreme poverty.

Guatemalans are required to give 728 hours of service to their country between the ages of 18 and 24. Whereas previously military service was the only option, since 2011 a new civic service law was introduced, giving youngsters the option of choosing social service, which is similarly paid for at the rate of 1.10 dollars per hour. Rights activists in the country have welcomed the new law, especially since military service was in the past used to recruit young people into the country’s civil war.

Youngsters choosing the new civic service spoke to the Inter Press Service for an article in the Guardian’s development section. One young woman said “I feel proud to be part of this change”. Another young man spoke of his enjoyment of the training, which includes sessions on first aid and emergency responses to natural disasters. The recruit’s motivation to help his community “out of love for my country” was clear, as he spoke about his “amazing” experiences with poor families and enthused about gathering information about their needs and preparing a report for the Secretariat of Food and Nutritional security.

There is certainly much work to do, since Guatemala has the worst malnutrition rates in Latin America. Last year, Oxfam raised awareness of the desperate food situation faced by many in the country, where it is common for households to spend 70% of their income on food. The growing cost of food has been exacerbated by the increasing use of the country’s land for lucrative export crops such as palm oil, squeezing out the growing of staples such as corn and soya. But high malnutrition rates are also the result of poor knowledge about nutrition. For example, only half of infants under six months are exclusively breast fed, with some mothers believing babies should have water and rice from an early age.

If the new civic service recruits can help to spread greater awareness about the best nutritional practices, then they will be proving their worth to their country. Meanwhile, international charities continue to call on the Guatemalan government to do more to address the food crises by standing up to the country’s land-owning elite and large agribusinesses, who are using ever more land for cash-crop cultivation.

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