By: Dr. Carmen Benítez
Coordinator of the medical program, Pop Wuj / Timmy Global Health / Todos Juntos (All Together)
Guatemala is a place of dualities: with great wealth, but also with a great quantity of people who must survive in poverty. Historically, hunger has been a problem that has affected generations of Guatemalans following the Spanish invasion 500 years ago. But hunger is not only a feeling but an aggregate of collective social-cultural traumas that have oppressed integral human development within Guatemala.
The stereotype of the Guatemalan physique is to be “short, fat, clever in conversation but not very intelligent.” Now, is this normal? No, it is a representation of what oppression of the cruelest and most dehumanizing kind has made of Guatemalans, an oppression of chronic hunger. The Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC) calculates that in 2012, 70.3% of Guatemala’s population lived in poverty (at an average of $900.00 per year) and, of this population, 13.3% lived in extreme poverty (at about $400.00 per year) (Virginia, 2015).
Multidimensional poverty comprises and identifies multiple deprivations at both familial and individual levels in the areas of health, education, and standard of living (Feres & Mancero, 2001). The Ministry of Health and the Secretary of Food and Nutritional Security (la Secretaria de Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional [SESAN]) confirmed that, in 2015, 49.8% of Guatemalan children suffered from chronic malnutrition (low height for their age), and between 1.3 to 3.6% suffered from acute malnutrition (low weight for their height). The ministry of health offers programs for the latter (acute malnutrition), but it has not invested in the first problem, the creator of much of the stagnation in social and human development. That is, ours remains a system that depends upon treatment, not prevention.
Perhaps we can satisfy hunger, but in a context where the population has been limited to the procurement of healthy, functional food for real nutrition, we have seen ourselves obligated to sate ourselves with a cheap, incomplete diet. What’s more, this diet is totally manipulated by the industry that has damaged the nutritional ideal for the growth and normal development of an infant. Therefore, poverty prevents eight of ten indigenous children from obtaining the nutrients necessary for cognitive and psychomotor development. This leaves them with short stature, which in turn puts their lives in danger, causing an increase in the risk of falling ill and/or becoming infected more easily during their first 1,000 days. Even more tragically, these first 1,000 days are crucial for the absorption of micronutrients necessary for normal brain development (zinc, phosphorus, iodine, etc.) (Duskin, Papalia, & Wendkos, 2009). Added to this is the fact that the first five years of life are the period during which the most neural connections are created and brain elasticity is most evident.
So what are the long-term effects of chronic malnutrition?
- Learning capacity is damaged; therefore, intelligence quotient (IQ) tests can be from 10 to 20 points lower in children affected by this condition (Virginia K., Valoración del Crecimiento, 2009, p. 70-78), causing frustration in and with the scholastic process and may prompt malnourished students to drop out of school. Thereafter, their educational levels will always remain paused between barely the third and sixth year of primary school, resulting in adolescent and adult unemployment.
- Pregnancies among poorly nourished adolescent mothers who give birth to babies with malnutrition as well.
- Obesity risk in adulthood which predisposes patients to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia.
- Significant decrease in productivity during adulthood, causing a 22% loss in annual income (Health, 2015).
- The perpetuation of poverty and hunger.
What factors comprise are the cause (of malnutrition)?
Malnutrition is a condition whose root causes include the lack of bioavailability of food, which is the most common cause and which is almost always associated to secondary causes due to medical or environmental conditions that do not permit the absorption of necessary nutrients. In Guatemala, three main factors directly affect the child population:
- The lack of management and regulation of toxic waste, such as lead, contaminated or sewage water polluting rivers, water treatment and its availability (or lack thereof), open-fire cooking using toxic waste such as plastics, exposure to non-classified waste and pesticides, etc.;
- the lack of infrastructure, such as overcrowded living conditions without latrines with good waste systems; and
- the lack of access to public services.
All of the above have perpetuated a state of primary unhealthiness in the population, which affects principally the rural indigenous population. However, we must also face a so-called “epidemiological transition” with the emergence of new, unidentified, untreated diagnoses in the area causing deaths whose impacts we cannot yet evaluate and understand (Feres & Mancero, 2001) (Salud, 2015).
The Pop Wuj Association for Spanish Studies (La Asociación Centro de Estudios de Español Pop Wuj) is a Guatemalan non-profit organization founded, organized, and managed by Guatemalans, with a social perspective that has functioned since 1992. In order to finance its social projects, Pop Wuj has a Spanish school for foreigners whose tuition payments are invested in reforestation, education, family support, and a medical program that includes a clinic for chronic patients, medical workdays in rural communities, and a referral system and nutrition program for children under five years. This nutrition program has supported 120 children annually for the past three years with different supplements provided per the type of malnutrition manifested in each child.
It is for this reason that this project is dedicated to Guatemalan children: Because the struggle goes beyond the reductionist explanation of underdevelopment. We are convinced that the existence of a biological, social, cultural, and historical system is the cause of the pain and stagnation in our country. Our vision is to help with a sense of empathy and responsibility in our society, as well as provide cultural relevance and sensitivity in the communities that we serve with the idea that we can become self-sustaining in the future. We seek to achieve this through sharing the tools for community development.
Our project focuses on the integrity and dignity of the children who suffer from acute and chronic malnutrition. “We focus on building healthy, capable, productive, happy individuals,” because we believe and we have seen that small, constant miracles have the power to build and shape lives.
For more detailed information, contact us:
Learn more about the program through this page or blog:
http://www.proyectospopwuj.blogspot.com/p/health-and-medical-program.html or in Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Programa-contra-la-Desnutrici%C3%B3n-Pop-Wuj-1626403087597982/timeline/
Address: Primera Calle 17-72 (Calle Cajolá) Zona 1 (a la vuelta de Galgos)
Phone: (502) 4215-6183/ (502) 77618286.
Monday through Friday we can receive your support in the offices of the Pop Wuj Spanish School in Guaemala from 8:00am to 6:00pm