BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Guatemala’s fight against organised crime and violence has taken centre stage ahead of elections next month while malnutrition, one of the leading killers of children under five in the Central American nation, is receiving scant attention on the campaign trail.
Malnutrition affects one in two Guatemalan children under five, according to the United Nations children's agency UNICEF, meaming the country has the sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world.
In a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, cracking down on spiralling crime is a key election promise among electoral candidates, including Otto Perez, frontrunner and retired army general in the polls to elect a new president and government.
Organised crime and rising drug fuelled violence, partly caused by the increasing presence of Mexican cartels, which battle in Guatemala over cocaine smuggling routes to the U.S., dominate local headlines and overshadow all other issues.
It means fighting malnutrition is not a priority.
“The main problem for most people is crime and violence, which has been getting worse recently,” UNICEF’s nutrition officer in Guatemala, Maria Claudia Santizo, told AlertNet in an interview. “Most people have been a victim of crime or know someone who has been.”
“The public doesn’t see malnutrition as a major problem in Guatemala. They don’t see access to food as a fundamental right,” she added.
MAYA WORST AFFECTED
Malnutrition disproportionately affects Guatemala’s Maya indigenous population, many of whom live in the country’s impoverished rural areas. Significant gaps exist in access to education and health services between indigenous and non-indigenous groups.
A combination of intermittent droughts and erratic rainfall in recent years, high food prices – the price of maize has risen by 80 percent over the last year – few jobs and low wages in rural areas, mean many families are too destitute to buy enough food all year round.
Over the last few years, a drop in remittance payments from the U.S. -- money sent home by migrant workers to relatives -- has also made it harder for families to afford enough food. Around half of Guatemala’s population of 13.8 million lives in poverty and relies on remittances to make ends meet and to pay for basic groceries.
Experts say the long-standing problem of unequal land distribution and lack of rural reform means much of the country’s arable land remains in the hands of the rich elite and powerful coffee and sugar farmers.
Guatemala’s food crisis is also a result of complex, deeply entrenched social attitudes and habits that have meant little, if not any, progress in reducing the country’s malnutrition rates over the last decade.
“Some social classes have no idea about how the poor live and the problems they face,” said UNICEF’s Santizo. “They’re just not aware of the problem of chronic malnutrition. Many people think it’s normal that a child dies before their first birthday.”
“Guatemalans are also used to being short. People don’t realise that having a low height, or stunting, is caused by chronic malnutrition,” she added.
The reason behind Guatemala’s high malnutrition rates is not only lack of food but getting mothers to give their children the right food.
Few women are aware of the importance of breast feeding so that their children receive the nutrients they need during the early months, says Santizo.
“Only half of Guatemalan children under six months are exclusively breastfed,” said Santizo. “There’s a lack of education about the benefits of breastfeeding. There are mothers who think giving their babies water and rice instead is the right thing to do.”
The lack of government funds to tackle malnutrition along with corruption also makes if difficult to reduce the number of people going hungry in Guatemala.
“People don’t want to pay taxes because they see politicians as corrupt, so the government has little money to spend on the problem. And when there is money, funds are either diverted and or used in an inefficient way,” Santizo said.
She and other experts say the new government needs to make reducing malnutrition and poverty a state priority, which involves better coordination among different ministries and with international aid agencies.
“There’s not been an integral government policy to tackle malnutrition and a commitment from the government to invest in health and reduce poverty, like there has been in Brazil, Peru and Chile,’ Santizo said.