The scope of the problem bears out that dire warning. Although hunger is especially acute in the countryside, even Cambodia's relatively affluent urban population suffers disturbingly high rates of malnutrition. The most recent data released by the Ministry of Health reveal that in 1996, nearly 34% of children below the age of five in this upper-income group were moderately underweight and 21% severely stunted. The results suggest that not only income, but also sociocultural factors may contribute to the underfeeding of children. For traditional cultural reasons--breastfeeding from birth is seen as taboo--Cambodian women are often reluctant to suckle their newborns immediately, waiting several days and thereby depriving infants of highly nutritious colostrum, or first milk.
Much of the difficulty in feeding kids properly stems from the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's mad attempt at transforming the country into a vast agrarian commune destroyed its irrigation system, which had made Cambodia a net rice exporter in the 1960s. Since most farmers no longer hold formal title to their land--eliminated at the time, along with private property--their fields are vulnerable to takeover by soldiers and local thugs. And the sundering of countless families has disrupted the passage of traditional knowledge from mother to daughter. In some outlying districts, many women have 10 or more children; some are either unaware of birth control techniques or unable to afford condoms. Nobody comes to explain to them about healthcare, says Kao Chheng Huor, head of the WFP office for the provinces of Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear.
PAGE 1 |
For the past four years, Cambodia has actually recorded a small rice surplus--estimated to reach 30,000 tons this year. This bounty, however, is distributed poorly, and many farmers simply cannot afford to buy what is available. (In a country with a per capita income of only $300 a year, about 36% of Cambodians live below the official poverty line; last year the WFP assisted 1.4 million people, 15% of the population, with its food-for-work program.) Even those who have rice often have little else--perhaps a little salt, or the fermented fish paste called prahoc--to round out the dish. That little is not nearly enough: rice, while high in calories, has relatively few nutrients.
The WFP says Prime Minister Hun Sen was shocked by the U.N. surveys, and he now insists that eliminating malnutrition is a top priority. Now that the fighting is over, we expect everyone to work on this issue, says Nouv Kanun, the energetic secretary general of the newly created Council for Agriculture and Rural Development. A conference of Cabinet ministers and provincial authorities last month endorsed a 10-year, $90 million plan to tackle the root causes of malnutrition, focusing on crop diversification and awareness campaigns about nutrition, health and hygiene. Still, the damage that is already evident will plague Cambodia for years to come. If you are malnourished from six months until you are five, you are going to be handicapped for the rest of your life, warns Davies. You will never be able to develop your full mental or physical capacity. Perhaps now that warning can be heard.
Reported by Caroline Gluck/Kampong Thom