In Focus

‘Always something taking my children away’: The anguish of parents battling a global hunger crisis

As the UK hosts a food security summit, Lauren Crosby Medlicott speaks to mothers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan about the constant struggle for meals – with Save the Children saying that one child will be born into hunger every two seconds this year

Monday 20 November 2023 16:23 GMT
<p>Sifa* breastfeeding her young baby in the Mugunga camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo</p>

Sifa* breastfeeding her young baby in the Mugunga camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Having lived in a tent in the Mugunga camp in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since February, Sifa* constantly worries about how to feed her children.

With fighting between government forces and M23 rebels, Sifa made the difficult decision to leave home with her nine-year-old daughter and her husband – with another three children now in the care of their grandmother – to search for safety and a future for her family. Since fleeing, Sifa’s family has experienced significant weight loss and have been pushed into a state of malnutrition. She gave birth to another child, a son, within the camp.

“Since giving birth three months ago, I have been struggling to feed my infant,” the 33-year-old mother told The Independent. “Despite my efforts to feed him, my breast milk is insufficient and lacks the necessary nutrients to satisfy him.”

She is aware that her breast milk supply would increase if she had more food herself, but her priority isn’t to feed herself with their limited rations but to feed her daughter.

“She already has to beg for food every day and goes to sleep hungry,” Sifa said. “I make sure to give her whatever little we have.”

As Sifa and her family continue to desperately look for food to keep them alive, governments, international organisations, scientists, and private companies gathered in London on Monday for a “reset moment” on the global food security crisis.

On the agenda: to figure out new approaches to tackle preventable deaths of children from food insecurity.

Save the Children says that one child is born into hunger every two seconds in 2023. That’s more than 17.6 million children, one-fifth more than a decade ago.

The analysis shows that children in every corner of the world, particularly places like East Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan, are facing one of the worst hunger crises on record.

“Climate-induced drought, ongoing economic turmoil, and conflicts forcing people from their homes have decimated people’s ability to cope and made nutritious food unattainable for millions,” said Callum Northcote, head of hunger and nutrition at Save the Children UK. “The worst thing is that, in many cases, countries are dealing with all of these factors at the same time.”

Northcote said the conflict in Ukraine has also contributed to the hunger crisis.

“It’s had a devastating impact on food prices globally,” he said. “For many, the basics became unaffordable.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the number of children born into hunger is the highest since records began.

Zolaikha, 23, with Marium, aged 10 months

Although Sifa and her husband feel uncomfortable sending their daughter to beg, a dangerous task for a young girl, the couple have no other option.

“I try to keep an eye on her to make sure no one hurt her,” she said.

Sifa’s husband has been looking for a job to enable the family to buy more food but is “constantly rejected”.

“Once while asking around, he was attacked and beaten up so badly he had to be hospitalised,” she said. “We depend on humanitarian assistance or else we wouldn’t have survived as long as we have.”

Having already lost two children – one to malaria and cholera, the other to one of the armed groups that invaded her village – Sifa is constantly afraid she will lose another.

“There is always something taking my children away from me,” she said. “If it’s not war, it is lack of food. If it isn’t that, then it’s disease. I’m scared for my children’s health. I’m scared of waking up to find my baby gone.”

Sifa’s fears are not unfounded. Approximately one-fifth more newborns will face hunger this year compared to 2013, when 14.4 million children were born into the grips of hunger, according to Save the Children.

“Hunger will destroy their dreams, silence their play, disrupt their education, and threaten their lives,” said Northcote. “The future of these children is already compromised before they even take their first breath. We must protect their childhoods and futures before it’s too late.”

Ten months ago, Marium* was born to 23-year-old Zolaikha* in Afghanistan, and among roughly 440,000 children estimated to be born into hunger in Afghanistan this year.

Most days, Zolaikha’s family of four only eat bread and rice. They rarely eat fruit or vegetables, and the last time they ate meat was four months ago.

When she was only six months old, Marium started getting persistent diarrhoea and was later diagnosed with pneumonia due to a weakened immune system.

“She became severely weak two months ago,” Zolaikha told The Independent. “She was extremely weak. She was crying all the time and was always in pain or discomfort and had a high fever. I used to cry with her. It was difficult to see my daughter in pain.”

Her other child was also severely malnourished, with frequent bouts of diarrhoea turning into pneumonia.

“It is all because of drinking unsafe water and not having enough nutritious food,” Zolaikha said.

As leaders meet in London, Northcote hopes for the sort of progress seen in the past. While some progress on child hunger has been made in the past two decades, it started to significantly decline in 2019, largely due to economic instability, conflicts and the worsening climate crisis.

“We’re urging the UK government to step up and increase funding as well as work with the international community to find collective solutions that ensure children and their families access good, nutritious foods in order to prevent hunger and malnutrition,” said Northcote.

“Hunger is not a lost cause,” he added. “We have the power to significantly reduce the number of malnourished children right now, like we have in the past. But if we do not tackle the root causes of hunger and malnutrition, we will continue to see the reversal of progress made for children. This is a global hunger crisis, and it requires a global solution. [This] summit is a good step, but this must be matched with increases in funding.”

*Names have been changed

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