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ASIA
MAY 17, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 19


Hunger's Silent Victims
Cambodia turns its attention to child malnutrition rates that are even worse than North Korea's
By NISID HAJARI

Cambodia is accustomed to the thunder of artillery, to death tolls thickened by war and disease. The quiet of peace, however, has begun to allow more subtle killers a hearing. The latest crisis: food security, or its shameful absence among the country's malnourished poor. The problem is hardly new, only newly appreciated. Earlier this year a joint survey published by UNICEF and the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) found that in Cambodia's poorest rural areas, nearly half the children under age five are physically stunted, while 20% suffer acute malnutrition. According to a separate U.N. study published last December, Cambodia has the highest malnutrition rates in East Asia, with an average daily intake of only 1,980 calories, even lower than that of famine-stricken North Korea (2,390 calories). "Malnutrition in Cambodia is chronic," says the WFP's acting country director, Ken Noah Davies. "You could call this a silent emergency, or you could call this a national crisis."

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  |  2



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