"There's a man who is my brother, I just don't know his name. But I know his home and family because I know we feel the same. And it hurts me when he's hungry and when his children cry. I too am a father, and that little one is mine." John Denver
We ask people all over the world about food security and hunger. Are there children getting enough food? What do they do to get food? If they don’t have enough what do they do. Parents and grandparents from India to Liberia, the DRC to Mozambique tell us their strategies about dealing with hungry children. Here are a few of their strategies, which include avoidance, beatings, begging, and so on. In their own words:
One mother in the Democratic Republic of Congo avoids her children:
When I don’t have enough food I avoid the children. That way they can’t ask me for food. I just pray to God that they don’t steal. To this time, I don’t think they have.
Female: Household size: 8 children
In Liberia, a woman goes hungry so her children can eat:
Because of the hard time, many Saturdays we don’t have food to eat. For Sundays, most times neighbors feels sorry for us when they cook they extend their hands to us.
My main concern is for my children. I allow them to eat the food while I remain empty. Most of the time, I go around to neighbors to eat and they give some of their food to eat…I really don’t care if they are giving it to me willingly or not. My major thinking is to survive. I have to eat and so I don’t look for attitude of giver when I am hungry.”
Female, Age 43, Household size=5
In India, a woman beats her child so he won’t ask for food:
I try to keep them quiet by beating them and tell them that I have no money… He gets scared because of the beatings… They get scared to look at me.
Female, Household size: 4
Finally, a grandmother from Mozambique tells us how she tries to get the boy to withstand the hunger, but he envies others. She wonders whether he understands the situation:
The challenges that I have encountered, they are many. The suffering of my grandson…Even when he wants to eat… you see now its morning, until now, he hasn’t eaten anything.
He will drink a cup of tea and a piece of cassava and he will go to school. When he comes back is when he will eat something…later on. The manner of eating, of dressing, it is very difficult.
When he gets home he asks for it. When you say that you don’t have, it is as if you are refusing, but he is able to see the granny does not have, because granny does not work. The grandfather works, but he is only able to buy a bag of rice for us to be able to survive.
He does not eat what he wants, so he envies. Sometimes he goes to school without having a snack. He says “Granny can I have 1metical to buy a snack?” I do not have, so sometimes I tell him to take cassava, put it in a plastic bag and take it to school. It looks like I refuse to give him things here in the house. He is suffering, even me as the grandmother, I am suffering, because I think about having things to give him but I don’t have.
Female: Household size: 3
I think a lot about children and families being hungry but not how caregivers interact with their children who are hungry. These quotes above provide a tiny window into the relationships between parents and children and the struggles they face. Children are persistent little people who want to eat when they are hungry. Parents must cope with the pain of their hunger (and hunger is painful) as well as figure out how to manage the feelings and behavior of their hungry children. This can often yield parent-child interactions that are damaging to the child and the parent.
In a worst case scenario, I will never forget Maraweed, mother of Julius (see here for Julius’ story). She fought like hell to save her child. She walked miles in the hot sun, with her boy on her back, to get to Nkhotakota District Hospital for regular feedings. When, despite Maraweed’s efforts–Julius died–she sprung back to life like a plant that had been pruned. Once the burden of caring for her sickly, malnourished child ended, she could eat more, stop walking miles to the hospital and focus on the rest of her family.
While child mortality is high in so many countries (Click here for Child Survival Global Call for Action and here for the Roadmap to ending preventable child deaths), most children will survive. As the children get older, the risk is that they will be forced to work (such as burning coal in Liberia), to marry at a young age (which happens every everywhere), to prostitute or steal or other activities to earn money so they can buy food.
Let’s be clear. It does not need to be this way. There are policy changes and affordable strategies that together could end hunger. Food insecurity in these countries is a matter of apathy, war and conflict, inequality, lack of access to land, misinformed policies (such as Western agricultural subsidies).
For the poorest households, I have seen the evidence, helped collect the data to show that social protection programs work. The Roadmap calls for better measurement of programs and interventions to “educate girls, empower women, and delivering inclusive economic growth.” In my work, I have seen how Social Cash Transfers can empower families, get children in school, improve agricultural production, jump-start businesses, and end food insecurity. Of course, there are many important details in the program’s design and implementation and serious monitoring and evaluation of programs is essential. And these are just the beginning. But for mothers and grandmothers with young children, chronically ill people, the elderly, families that have suffered other shocks and need a lifeline, these programs work.
At the end of the day I AM A MOTHER. I want my children, all children, to eat when they are hungry.
See here for Social Protection for Africa
See for example: Miller, C., Tsoka, M. and Reichart, K., 2011. The impact of the Social Cash Transfer Scheme on food security in Malawi. Food Policy, 36, 230-238. Many important articles are cited in this article.