Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hunger Claims Lives of Balkh Children

Poverty, drought leaves babies and toddlers malnourished in north.
By Sania Safi
Desperate because her baby was losing weight daily, 23-year-old Shafoga took him to Balkh State Hospital. The child was malnourished.

Now the baby sleeps, the mother sitting nearby on a bed, blowing air on his face to cool him in the hot room.

In the last month, Shafoga has not eaten properly for a single day because her husband gets work only occasionally. “I wish God had not created the poor,” she said.

Shafoga’s story is not uncommon in Balkh province. Poverty, drought and the absence of adequate health services are the main causes of malnutrition in the province, which borders Uzbekistan.

The problem is especially prevalent in rural areas. “People don’t know how to feed their children properly and there are no healthcare services,” said Mohammad Latifi, who heads the Balkh government department dealing with malnutrition.

"Of course it is for parents to feed their children. In many cases, parents are not able to provide the necessary food and feed their children with fruits, eggs, meat, fat, beans, etc. They do lack awareness as well.

"So we can say that lack of access of parents to enough food causes these problems with children, such as anaemia, weight loss, weakness, etc ... but let's not forget that the government is also responsible for providing health facilities for the citizens.”

Meanwhile, the number of malnourished children grows. Since the beginning of the year, the Balkh Public Health Office registered about 400 stricken under-five-year-olds, says Dr Mirwais Rabih, its head.

An official health survey counted 223 malnourished children receiving medical treatment since the beginning of this year, compared with 369 in the whole of last year. Twenty of them have died so far this year.

Many people live on white bread and tea, and the lack of proteins and vitamins leads to exhaustion and disease, say experts. Hardest hit are pregnant mothers and babies, who are sometimes half the weight they should be.

In Balkh province, it is districts like Zarrae, Aaqcha, Dawlat Abad, Charbolak and some parts of Sholgara where malnutrition is concentrated.

Hunger and poverty are major challenges across the country and malnutrition is widespread, says Naimatullah Bijhan, head of the monitoring office of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

Health services are especially poor in remote areas, says Mohammad Amin Fatami, the minister of public health. “With the help of the international community, we have made a lot of advances in the health sector but still many more health centres are needed,” he said.

The drought is especially bad in Balkh province. As elsewhere in Afghanistan, irrigation is not well developed, and the lack of rain means whole crops of tomatoes, potatoes, okra and melon have failed. Areas that are completely green can turn almost overnight into a desert, leaving people with nothing to eat.

As many of the people of the area are farmers, the failure of crops has a direct effect on family incomes and on children’s nutrition.

“We don’t have enough food so I don’t have milk in my breasts,” said Shah Pari, 28, who has brought her two-year-old child to the hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif from Sholgara. “Now I feed him with milk powder.”

Sania Safi is an IWPR trainee in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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