The most basic level requires three things:
Human survival at the most basic level requires three things: food, shelter, and clean water. Most of the Guatemalan population lack one or more of these basic requirements. Although Guatemala is not the poorest country in Latin America, it has the highest rate of malnutrition in the region and the Western Hemisphere and the fourth-highest rate in the entire world. As of 2009, malnutrition rates in Guatemala were double those in Haiti. Half of the population of children under five years old in Guatemala are malnourished. This average is up to 80 percent higher in indigenous regions. Some even say that Guatemala is truthfully two countries in one—the select few rich and the rest who are extremely poor—with 20 percent of the population having nearly 60 percent of the country’s total income.
Recent History of the Indigenous Mayan Population
Indigenous people of Guatemala are Mayan Indians.
There are many groups within the Mayan community with various colorful cultures and customs; however, the one thing they all share in common is abject poverty. They live in the mountainous regions of Guatemala far from any large cities, and they have no public transportation. The Mayans, once a thriving indigenous people, were obliterated by the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. This war left the Mayan populations demoralized, isolated, and their social conditions damaged. Between 1978 and 1989, the western highlands of Guatemala became a “killing field.” It was there that the Guatemalan army waged a rural counterinsurgency operation against not only a small armed guerrilla force but also a large unarmed, civilian, and mostly Mayan population. Tens of thousands of people were killed or disappeared (a Guatemalan euphemism for “dead”). Another one million people—approximately half of the rural population—were displaced within the country for some period of time while tens of thousands of men, women, and children fled across the Mexican border to live in exile. Most of the Mayans who remain in the mountain villages sleep on the ground, live in rudimentary huts, and eat only what they can produce on their small plots of land. The government of Guatemala left them alone and unaided for decades as they wiped out the population of at least 40 entire rural villages and forever changed multiple others during the bloody civil war.
Children - The Greatest Victims
No one knows for sure how many widows and orphans there are in Guatemala as a result of the political violence.
The estimates range from 40,000 to 80,000 widows and 150,000 to 250,000 children who have lost at least one parent. Now UNICEF estimates that there are more than 400,000 orphans in Guatemala. It is also estimated that 5,000 children, who are not orphans but have been abandoned by mothers who are too poor to keep them, live on the streets in Guatemala City. These children come from families facing tremendous poverty. In Guatemala, 70 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and 27 percent make less than $1 US per day.
Stunting and Malnourishment as the Norm
Tremendous poverty has horrendous effects on every area in the life of a child struggling for survival.
Malnutrition in Guatemala not only inhibits the development of each child but also the development of the nation as a whole. The absence of food and the presence of malnutrition is even more apparent within large families.
Some sources indicate that when deciding which children will receive food, male children take precedence, leaving female siblings more likely to be hungry and malnourished. Most poor Guatemalan children are malnourished during the most crucial stages of development—the prenatal and neonatal stages. In fact, the problem of malnutrition is so widespread in indigenous communities, and health education is so deficient, that stunting and malnourishment are the norm, not even being recognized as issues. At least 50 percent of Guatemalan babies ranging from 30 to 35 months meet the criteria for being stunted and malnourished. In the central mountainous region of the country, 74 percent of the children under the age of 5 are stunted. Surprisingly, anemia and obesity are on the rise as well. The number of overweight people in Guatemala has grown by 87 percent in the last 43 years, giving it the highest rate of overweight people in Latin America. Pan American Health Organization states, “The same type of diet that is heavy in carbs and cheap fats, which makes kids short and anemic, also makes adults fat.”
Adding to the unhealthy conditions, the country’s water infrastructure is very poor.
Running water is a luxury for the rich, and tap water is unsafe to drink. Contaminated water causes parasites, infections, and diarrhea, which are all correlated with malnutrition. In a study done to explore the prevalence of diarrhea and respiratory infections among Guatemalan children, it was found that half of the Guatemalan children displayed at least one of these problems in a two-week period. One quarter had a fever, and one fifth had diarrhea and a constant cough. The cycle then continues to worsen as diarrhea and infections can cause dehydration and malnutrition.
Malnourished children show a decrease in cognitive capacity in which the severity of intellectual disability depends on the severity of malnourishment.
Severity ranges from complete mental disability to lowered academic performance and decreased IQ. How a Guatemalan child forms personal identity and relates to the world is greatly affected by malnourishment, especially if he or she is already negatively affected physically and cognitively.According to UNICEF, society pays the price for malnutrition—$8.4 million a day for hospitalization, students failing school, and the need for repetition of the first years of school.
An Opportunity for Americans
The need is truly great in our neighboring country of Guatemala.
We haven’t been told the truth about what is happening so very close to us. These children don’t get covered on our evening news. They suffer in remote areas where their voices cannot be heard and where they don’t have electricity to see what is just over the next mountain or what possibilities could await them. They live in isolation, and any exposure to life outside of their community is very small. If they are abandoned in the cities, their need for survival becomes even more extreme. Adult predators use the children to beg, and in return, the children receive minimal food and shelter. Some are sold into child prostitution and slavery. The Guatemalan government is beginning to reach out again in an effort to bring small changes, but with the overwhelming number of these children, it is far from enough. Only recently have more Americans become aware of their plight and begun to reach out. Together we are beginning to make a big difference. The Guatemalan people are a beautiful, grateful, generous people who deserve all the help that we can give.