When Children Go Hungry
Experts say numbers of reported children suffering from hunger in Afghanistan are rising. As a mother, I can't help but wonder what I can do to make things a little better.
The front page of a recent New York Times is chilling. A shrouded woman holds a baby with a face so gaunt from hunger that his skin hangs in folds. He looks like an elderly man as he cries out in her arms. Malnutrition among the very young is on the rise in Afghanistan, and with so many possible reasons why, experts are confounded to declare one specific cause.
It’s a story so grim, so full of defeat that I could hardly get through the whole thing. As a mom with three little kids and one more on the way, I can barely read this stuff anymore. It’s simply too painful. I know what it takes to make my kids cry, and it’s not much. When I think about how much effort I put into their well being every day—preparing fresh food, making sure their growing bodies get enough rest, teaching them the fundamental truths I believe in—and how exhausted I am by assuming their care, I can’t understand how it works in the opposite direction. If it takes so much to raise a child in a happy and healthy environment, how can these children in Afghanistan survive such horrific experiences and go on?
That’s when another part of me wakes up, the part who wants to help. Can I help? The only way to be useful is to better understand what’s going on, so I read on.
The article points out that there’s no one reason why more and more starving children are showing up in hospitals all over the war-torn country, offering instead only theories. There are mines in family gardens where food might otherwise have been grown, experts say. There’s a culture where women are kept to their homes and only communicate with immediate family members, marginalizing efforts by global relief organizations to educate mothers on nutrition. Millions are displaced by war, it’s reported, and even though UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders (among other agencies) have therapeutic feeding programs to offer, they can’t reach many families in need.
And there’s more. “The main cause of malnutrition in Afghanistan is lack of breast feeding,” explains Dr. Khan in Helmand Province. “They see beautiful pictures of milk cartons and they think it’s better.” But most families don’t have access to fresh milk, only powdered versions that must be mixed with water, clean water, which is often not available. Diarrhea is the result, and when there aren’t many feeding options to turn to, things go downhill for these young children very quickly.
Millions and millions of dollars have been poured into this region, all aimed at “helping” and this is the best we can hope for? It reminds me of a book on poverty that I once read, The Hole in Our Gospel, which lays out the deep complexities of the very poor. They don’t need more stuff, explains author Richard Steams, CEO of World Vision which is a Christian organization that pairs needy children with financial sponsors all over the world. Instead, he says they need jobs, infrastructure, clean drinking water, less corruption and more local leadership, among other things. How can I give that to them? I’m an educated person with a job of my own and a basic understanding of how the world works, not to mention a fiery temperament—surely those things can be put to use somehow.
But I still don’t know.
My husband and I sponsor a few children through World Vision, and while it’s only four kids in four very bleak corners of the world, this is one of the only ways I can get through a news story like this. We know there are kids who need someone to reach out, and for these four kids, we can say we’ll help. We’ll help with water, with education, with raising them up so they can be productive adults, and maybe even leaders, in their communities someday. We’ll probably never meet any of them in person, but we’re hoping that we can make an impact in their lives this way.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
I’m not alone either. Millions of us are trying, along with massive efforts by professional relief organizations all over the world. It’s still not quite working, but I say we’ve got to keep trying.
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