Hungering for Equality

May 032006
Authors: Meg Burd

It is a scourge that kills one child every 10 minutes. It crops up in places of poverty, taking away children slowly and painfully.

While most of us don’t see the face of starvation, the problem of malnutrition (particularly childhood malnutrition) is an epic issue that can be found in areas throughout the world.

“Three quarters of the 146 million undernourished children come from just 10 countries,” reports Maxine Frith in the British newspaper The Independent. With places such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan facing an approximate 73 million children suffering from malnutrition, and indeed many children in America facing such a dire health problem, this seems a vital issue that demands more of the world’s attention.

“One underweight and undernourished child is an individual tragedy,” noted UNICEF executive director Ann M. Veneman at a briefing at UN Headquarters in New York. “But multiplied by tens of millions, under-nutrition becomes a global threat to society and to the economy.”

In Ethiopia, for instance, childhood malnutrition has been recognized as a problem in 25 hot spot areas, reports UNICEF.

“War, famine and drought have already forced some 200,000 people to seek refuge in camps,” reports Jane O’Brien in a recent UNICEF report.

With a lack of water and an ongoing drought in the region, many of the refugee children are facing dire hunger situations, and 40 children have already died from malnutrition.

Created during the civil war in the 1980s, more than half a million people were shuffled into the camps, and while such camps closed last year, thousands still remain in the impoverished and hunger-wracked place.

In places such as Yemen, malnutrition similarly poses a major problem, threatening the lives of a multitude of children.

According to an IRIN report on the country, “Around 42 percent of Yemen’s population of 20 million live below the poverty line, representing a daily income of U.S. $2 or less.”

One UNICEF official in Yemen pointed to this crushing poverty experienced by many in the nation as the cause for this suffering.

Bangladesh and Pakistan each have 8 million children suffering as a result of hunger. Almost half of all children in south Asia are underweight and girls are more likely to be victims of a poor diet than boys.

For immediate assistance, a recent UN report called on actions such as better public health initiatives, “such as adding iodized salt to reduce deficiencies and more help for the poorest nations, particularly those with high rural populations,” Frith said in the Independent.

When examining issues of widespread malnutrition and the poverty that causes such situations, it is important to look at immediate causes and examine the long-term social and economic situations that create and aggravate these situations. Too often, legacies of colonialism, current oppressive conditions imposed by trade policies and international debt programs, exploitative industrial practices and other conditions imposed upon places by (usually) the industrialized nations of the world are ignored.

While the immediate pangs of hunger felt by many in the world might be temporarily eased by generosity, attention and, perhaps, assistance programs from the global community, it is the underlying and deep-rooted historical and current conditions that must be addressed to effectively eradicate things such as malnutrition.

Often, things such as gender discrimination on a local and global level similarly impact the amount of childhood malnutrition in many places. In Ethiopia, UNICEF found that girls were more likely to experience malnutrition and hunger, and in other areas of Africa and Asia, “improvements in per capita food availability and the quality of care for women and children (as represented by women’s education) offer the best hope for future reductions in child malnutrition.”

Promoting equality not only among men and women but also more equitable programs that do not subjugate individuals or populations by means of unfair socio-economic policies and other political acts seems essential in ending the poverty that leads to the devastating malnutrition that is affecting millions upon millions of children worldwide.

This tragedy, and indeed all tragedies connected to inequality and exploitation, must be examined, and we should individually and collectively work to end such harmful global systems that are causing the worldwide starvation of children.

Meg Burd is a graduate anthropology major.

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