ALDEA CHICORRAL, Guatemala (May 20, 2013) — Elena López lives in the western highlands of Guatemala in a one-room house with a dirt floor, no electricity and no running water. She grows her own coffee, makes her own tortillas by hand and has taught the three oldest of her four daughters how to use a stick to knock fruit out of the trees in the front yard.
Despite the fruit, and the chickens and a few other small animals, as well as a vegetable garden, one of López’s daughters suffers from acute malnutrition, and the others have lower-than-average body weight.
It’s a common problem here in Guatemala, where the latest government survey reveals nearly one in two children under 5 years old is chronically malnourished. Malnutrition not only threatens cognitive development, but it can also stunt growth, which is a serious problem here in Guatemala, especially in the rural areas.
Today, the López family is being visited by Faustina Vásquez, a community health worker supported by UNICEF.
“I am here at the house of Elena López because she has a girl with acute malnutrition, and I want to see whether our intervention is working,” says Vásquez. “I am also teaching Elena how to use Plumpy’Nut [nutritional paste] and nutritional sprinkles to help nourish her girls, as well as giving the girls vitamin A drops.”
I ask Vásquez whether interventions like this one are working.
“Yes, we are having success,” she says. “Not in every family, but with many families. For example, in this community of Aldea Chicorral, when I started 16 years ago, nobody would talk with me because I was an outsider. But, over time, I won them over. Now, people have a better understanding about nutrition and eating the right foods. Also, the importance of breastfeeding and complementary feeding and vitamin supplements, as well as vaccinations to protect their children.”
When asked why chronic malnutrition continues to be a problem in her community, López says people marry young and have a lot of children.
“The problem here with malnutrition is that if you have a family with 12 children, there isn’t enough food,” she says. “I have four children, plus me and my husband. If there are 10 children, you have to buy twice as much food. Having fewer children is one thing to help eliminate malnutrition.”
López jokes that her husband loves their four daughters, but he’s intent on having two boys, so she expects to have at least two more children, possibly more. She laughs, and thanks Vásquez for all her work to help keep her girls healthy and strong.
Vásquez has known López for 10 years, and has watched her girls grow.
“I look at women like Elena like they are my family,” she says. “I come from a poor background, too, and I tell them: If you change your habits, you change your life, and you can be successful and improve your life, and the lives of your children. All of my clients are like my family—every one of them.”