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BOLIVIA: Unequal Battle Against Hunger

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Aug 31 2007 (IPS) - In the crowded Bolivian barrio of Achachicala, Salvation Army pastors and volunteers are fighting malnutrition by feeding 500 children on less than 50 cents of a dollar per meal.

Mondays to Fridays, a padlock is unlocked at eight in the morning and the red metal gate of the religious centre slides open to make way for smiling children tired out from long walks of up to four kilometres. The Salvationists extend a helping hand and give them a plate of food.

Achachicala, an Aymara word that means “old stone”, is a former industrial area seven kilometres north of the centre of La Paz. It is one of the impoverished suburbs on the foothills of the mountain range bearing the same name as the city.

Six churches and homes and hostels for children, teenagers and adults have been set up in La Paz by the Salvation Army over its 90 years of activity in Bolivia. They offer food, medical assistance, family counselling and psychological support.

Operation Child Rescue (ORI) is under the command of Majors (pastors) Julia Rocabado and Héctor Herrera, and is based on biblical doctrine.

“Our mission is to rescue children from material and spiritual poverty, and to make them responsible adults in the name of Jesus,” Major Rocabado, a seminarian, told IPS.

The Salvation Army is an evangelical Christian church with a strong emphasis on social work, and is organised along quasi-military lines.

In Achachicala, it receives financial support from the non-governmental Compassion International, based in the western U.S. state of Colorado.

Committed to the people who are most in need and affected by spiritual and economic poverty, it searches out families in difficult situations and helps them, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Children between the ages of three and seven are identified by a team of social workers, who evaluate their needs and grant dining hall rights to some of the children in a family, Rocabado explaines.

For every five children, only two are admitted to the dining hall, although the programme director admits that selecting only some of the children “is the most painful part.” But she justified this method of work saying it avoids paternalism, which would deny the parents’ responsibility for their family.

The church pays special attention to malnourished children, detected at medical exams by their low weight and height, and because they perform badly at school.

Last year, 35 children who attended the centre still had symptoms of malnutrition, but this year there are less than 20, said Rocabado, clearly pleased.

Bolivian Health Minister Nilda Heredia told IPS that the government has drawn up a plan aimed at halving child malnutrition, which today afflicts nearly 400,000 children, or 30 percent of the country’s children.

The first phase of the Health Ministry’s Zero Malnutrition programme targets children under five suffering from chronic malnutrition, most of whom live in rural areas and whose parents have little to no formal education.

The plan will provide community feeding and nutrition services through teams made up of a nutritionist, a pediatrician and a social worker.

The departments (provinces) of Chuquisaca, Potosí, Cochabamba and La Paz have the highest concentration of children in need of supplementary feeding, according to the Health Ministry.

The authorities have begun to establish nutrition units in the municipalities with the highest poverty indices, such as the one in Ocurí, in the north of the department of Potosí. The unit there has the infrastructure to serve 15,000 children in Ocurí and the surrounding areas.

In order to meet the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations member countries in 2000, Bolivia must halve the proportion of its people suffering from hunger by 2015, from the 1990 baseline of 38.3 percent, as well as cutting in half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty.

At the Salvation Army dining hall, the battle against malnutrition is being waged in the midst of financial difficulties which force its organisers to buy food on a shoestring budget, but their aim of serving 500 children two meals a day has not wavered.

Breakfast is porridge and a glass of milk, and a bread roll and butter.

In poor homes, breakfast is usually a bread roll and tea made from cocoa husks, slightly sweetened, with limited nutritional value.

Lunch at the dining hall is usually vegetable soup and a second course of noodles with sauce, salad and a glass of papaya juice.

Quinoa (a local high-protein grain), wheat and lentils, which are abundant in the highlands and valleys of La Paz department, are also included on the menu, which is carefully prepared by a nutritionist.

Rocabado calculates the cost of a midday meal at 47 cents of a dollar, not including the wages of the kitchen staff.

In a country where food aid policies are limited, this voluntary work on a tight budget eases the burden of heads of households who find it hard to get jobs.

Poor families in Achachicala are usually headed by a casual worker with some skills, like construction work, and the mother is a homemaker who takes in other work, like laundry, to earn extra income.

A construction worker in Bolivia earns an average of nine dollars a day, but many employers pay only five dollars. With a month of steady work, a worker can expect to earn up to 100 dollars a month, not enough to meet the needs of an average family of five.

Women have even more difficulty in the labour market. Their lack of education limits their work options to providing services like laundry, for which they earn 60 cents of a dollar per dozen garments.

In one family with 10 children, the parents left the children in the care of the eldest daughter, aged 16, during the school holidays.

When she returned to the social programme, the Salvation Army doctors were astonished to find that she had stopped eating in order to feed the younger children, Rocabado said.

Every day the centre has to deal with cases of domestic abuse, “machismo” in the home expressed as violence towards women and children, and alcoholism, embedded in homes where hope is slowly fading away.

“Where is the government?” asks Rocabado, in a demand for more support, feeding programmes and medical assistance for poor families.

Lunch time is over, but before they file out of the dining hall, the children turn and challenge the volunteers’ charity yet again, asking “isn’t there a bit more to eat?”

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