A student rushed to her teacher with tears running down her face. In her helpless voice she cried out “teacher, my stomach is hurting. The pain is unbearable.” The desperation in Dhanu’s voice and the pale complexion on her face immediately caught the attention of the teacher.
“What’s wrong with you? Shall I give you some’ Asamodhagam’? What did you have for breakfast? Did you eat spoiled food?” The questions poured in as the teacher desperately tried to find out the cause of Dhanu’s stomach-ache. Suddenly, Dhanu started to vomit in front of her teacher and classmates. It was evident that something was wrong.
“I have not eaten anything in two days, teacher. My father hasn’t found any work so we couldn’t afford to eat,” Dhanu stated sorrowfully.
Dhanu wasn’t the first student who complained about a stomach-ache. She is one of the many children who come to school every morning on an empty stomach. Many students tend to complain about gastritis problems and some even faint due to severe abdominal pains. Teachers are clueless about how to help them.
Some teachers have taken the initiative to distribute large portions of their food during the interval to children who came with empty stomachs. These meals include jackfruit, and manioc, some of which were grown in their own home and prepared by the teachers themselves.
A teacher shared a saddening experience that she had with her class. The teacher brought one packet of rice for any student who couldn’t eat their breakfast. She had asked the class monitor to share a packet of rice with any students who could not eat their breakfast. The class monitor quickly took a poll to find out who might qualify for this meal.
“To my amazement, all of the 16 students in the classroom raised their hands except for one student,” the teacher stated in despair. The teacher added, “all of their facial expressions were filled with desperation as they all pleaded for that one meal.” I watched the students as they went on to share that meal. The teacher was shocked at the number of students who could not afford their breakfast.
A principal of a school located in urban slums shared a distressing story. She shared, “some children often come near the water tap frequently, almost too many times.”
One of the teachers who noticed it assumed that these children were trying to cut their classes. So, the teacher went to inquire as to why these students were loitering near the tap. However, the teacher was not prepared for the responses that would follow as one child’s response caused the teacher to start sobbing.
The student shared, “We often have to skip our meals for two days and this makes our empty stomachs make these sounds which are very embarrassing for us. Therefore, we often try to fill our stomachs by drinking water.”
Due to a mix of economic mismanagement and corruption, Sri Lanka recently suffered the worst economic crisis in its history. The crisis has made it a struggle for many children to have access to healthy and balanced diets. There have been multiple cases of malnutrition and hunger reported from all over the island. The heart-breaking stories do not seem to end as innocent children continue to suffer the consequences of an economic crisis.
According to UNICEF, 2.3 million children in Sri Lanka do not have enough food to consume. It is evident that children have become the victims of this crisis, helpless victims to be specific.
“Earlier we bought two and a half pounds of bread which were sufficient for a meal. Suddenly, the price of a loaf of bread increased to Rs. 200. My husband barely earns Rs.1000 per day, so how can we afford bread which costs us Rs. 500? Therefore, we decided to buy a loaf of bread and share it among the six of us. We drink some plain tea hoping that it would fill our empty stomachs.” This was a disturbing story of Hemanthi, a mother of 4 children.
Hemanthi’s husband Sujith is a fisherman. However, according to Hemanthi ,Sujith rarely gets a good catch of fish. With a weary face, Hemanthi said, “my husband came with 10 fishes today which must be divided among three of them. There was barely anything left for Sujith, he had little to none left. Providing one meal for our family has become an enormous challenge for us.”
“Only our pots and pans know how we eat” (API KANA HATI LIPA DANEE), Hemanthi said while weeping.
Nayomi is a health worker (midwife). Her husband is bedridden after a fatal illness. Ever since the illness, the burden of providing for the 5 members of her family which include her husbands’ parents have all been on her. Nayomi said, “We used to buy five hundred grams of vegetables. However, we had to downsize it to two hundred fifty grams. Medicine prices have skyrocketed, and life is miserable for every one of us.”
Sneha is a two-year-old scrawny girl who’s underweight. The doctors feared for her life and advised the parents to give her sufficient nutrients including milk, eggs, fish etc. However, the economic collapse adversely affected the tea states and Sneha’s dad couldn’t find much work either. The lack of an income stream has forced them to eat plain rice mixed with leaves such as lentils.
Savithri who is Sneha’s mother stated, “when my child got sick everybody asked us to take her to the specialist doctor. However, it is not easy to consult a doctor as the consultant fee has increased to Rs. 3000 and more. I had to pledge my wedding ring and receive some money on credit to make an appointment.” The doctors have advised Savithri to provide a more nitrous diet for Sneha. However, buying one egg and providing a healthy meal for her daughter continues to be a dream. Savithri is worried that her daughter will get sicker without having nutritious food.
This is not just Sneha’s story. According to UNICEF’s estimates, currently, 56,000 children around the country are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Furthermore, according to recent figures from the world food program nearly a third of Sri Lankan households do not have a guaranteed source of food and almost 70% are reducing the number of meals.
The young demographic has started to migrate with hopes of creating a better future for themselves while skilled professionals have also found well-paying jobs in foreign nations. There seems to be no hope in Sri Lanka as the streets are occasionally filled with frustrated civilians who protest against those responsible for their suffering. Political parties seem to be unbothered as they try to secure their electoral votes and positions by blaming each other for this economic crisis.
The bitter reality of Sri Lanka’s crisis is that the people who played a major role in Sri Lanka’s economic downfall continue to live their lavish lifestyles at the expense of innocent children’s futures. This economic crisis has not only affected the health level of the students. It has contributed to the rising number of students walking out of school as dropouts.
Fortunately, some Local and International Non-Government Organizations such as LEADS, World Vision Lanka, religious organizations and some individuals have come forward to help the children by providing a meal through the schools. LEADS is a leading National NGO working in Sri Lanka since 1978. They are working in 13 of the 25 districts of Sri Lanka. As an agency working in crisis response, LEADS are working with schools and are providing meals to school children including in the semi-urban area.
Initiatives have been taken to provide essentials such as books and medicine too. The daily attendance rate which was at a staggering 40% climbed up to 80% due to the meal initiative in a school in a semi urban area.
“I have not seen an egg or even a piece of dry fish for months. My mother said we will have to at least survive by having rice with coconut Sambol. However, now we can enjoy our lunch when we go to school,” stated Amali, who’s a grade 5 student. However, she also shared her concerns about her younger brother and sister who rely on a single slice of bread and plain tea or a biscuit with plain tea to satisfy their hunger. She was extremely distressed while telling this to her teacher.
Sri Lanka is also seeing a stream of foreign donations come in from Sri Lankans and other nationals residing in foreign countries. This has enabled many organizations to provide dry rations for families.
Welfare programs alone cannot solve this island-wide malnutrition problem. As children continue to cry out from hunger it’s high time to pause and listen to the children. The needs of these innocent children demand immediate action. The government cannot continue to pretentiously boast about their economic recovery to the global economy while ignoring the hunger epidemic taking place in their own backyard.
Childhood is not something which we can experience twice in our lives. Hence, let us not allow these innocent buds to be crushed. Let’s create an environment where they can bloom…
*Nilanka Jayasooriya is a Senior Journalist, Author & Social Activist from Sri Lanka. Worked for many leading newspapers of Sri Lanka, living in Colombo. She has also worked for many leading NGOs of Sri Lanka for Child protection and Urban Community Development programs.
She is representing Sri Lanka as an Ambassador for UNWPA (United Nation World Peace Org.)
She holds a degree (B.A) of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Post Graduate Diploma in Criminology & also holds a degree of Learning for Transformation from the University of GULL. (Global University of Lifelong Learning)