Chronic malnutrition haunts many poor children in Ecuador


QUITO, Ecuador — Sara Milena is just 20 days old. Her mother, Tania Herrera, lives with her parents, who are the breadwinners of an Ecuadorian household where they earn $5 to $7 a day to feed five adults and support new arrivals.

That income is stretched in the hope of feeding adults twice a day: coffee with bread, when there is any, in the morning and a plate of rice at night, or maybe not.

Originally from the Andean province of Cotopaxi, the family has lived in the capital for several years and only occasionally manages to buy chicken meat. The baby is breastfed.

Erwin Ronquillo, secretary of the government program Ecuador Grows Without Malnutrition, said that child malnutrition is chronic among Ecuador’s 18 million inhabitants. It’s seen everywhere, but it hits the hardest in rural areas and among the country’s indigenous people, he said.

Ecuador has the second highest rate of chronic child malnutrition in Latin America, after Guatemala. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, one in three Ecuadorian children suffers from malnutrition. Of these, 40.7% are indigenous, although indigenous people represent only 7% of the population. In just over a fifth of malnutrition cases, learning is affected.

Neiri Espinosa, a mother abandoned by her partner who lives in Quito’s remote Pisulí neighborhood, said her children, ages 8 and 4, rarely eat meat. Both appear to be younger due to the younger girl’s significant short stature and thinness, telltale signs of malnutrition.

Sometimes they can afford some chicken, but not often, Espinosa said.

“It is difficult to get any job (as a domestic worker), worse after the pandemic,” she said.

Mónica Cabrera, a family educator for the Ministry of Social Inclusion, is assigned to the Camal Metropolitano neighborhood in the extreme south of Quito, a high-risk area where she has been robbed on several occasions. Even so, she visits the homes of at least 25 young mothers, including two minors, ages 15 and 17. Her job is to support them while they are in their maternity process and then until the child is 1 year old.

Cabrera said the city’s poorest are generally indigenous immigrants from rural areas who make a living recycling garbage, making bricks or working as street vendors.

“Those who have more have the luxury of eating twice a day,” he said, but he adds that he knows families that eat only once and sometimes not even that.

In its latest report, UNICEF says that 50% of Ecuadorian households with children had difficulties obtaining the necessary food in 2021 due to the pandemic. As a result, 27% of children saw their development compromised due to chronic malnutrition, the agency says.

In addition to the lack or scarcity of food, 72.3% of children lack basic services for child development, such as health and education, says Unicef.

The government of President Guillermo Lasso, a former conservative banker, has pledged to combat chronic malnutrition by spending $350 million a year to improve health, family, education and counseling services.

Part of that support translates into a $50 monthly stipend for Tania Herrera, the mother of baby Sara Milena. To receive it, she promised to attend all alimony activities to which she is summoned.

Motherhood has shelved, perhaps for good, Herrera’s dream of becoming a soldier. He now hopes one day to return to his previous hard work in an artisan factory of fried potatoes and plantains.

Katherine Gualotuña lives in a cobbled wooden and plastic house on the edge of a ravine in Zámbiza, a rural town northeast of Quito. Intense humidity fills the hut, which is no more than 25 square meters (270 square feet). There are no windows, just a door covered by a curtain.

“It’s just that the ravine is receding and we don’t have a home, that’s why we’re here,” she said, holding 4-month-old Arleth Paulette on her lap.

“It has been a very tiring, but beautiful four months. We are happy with the girl, ”she added.

But the arrival of the baby has meant new expenses for a family already in trouble. Her mother contributes what she can by selling street food in a park in the center of Quito. Her father works as a cleaner for the municipality.

Gualotuña is working on her thesis necessary to graduate as a technologist in industrial mechanics. Sitting in the crowded house, she said that her biggest wish is to have “money to get out of here and build a little house.”

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