Photo story: Inside the hunger crisis in Guatemala

March 31, 2022
By Allison McCrave
March 31, 2022

As much as Alicia misses her daughter, she knows her grandchildren miss their mom even more.

Looking at pictures helps, but it’s no substitute for having their mother at home with them. They’re too young to fully understand why she left, and Alicia can’t answer questions about when she will be back, because she doesn’t know.

Alicia’s daughter left to find work in another part of Guatemala, because there weren’t any job opportunities closer to home. Being away from her family isn’t easy, but it’s a sacrifice she’s glad to make to ensure her children won’t go to bed hungry.

“My daughter left so her children would have breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Alicia explains.

Alicia’s granddaughter looks at photos of her mother, who left to find work.

Food insecurity was already on the rise in Guatemala before COVID-19. The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have only exacerbated inequality and poverty for hundreds of thousands of the country’s most vulnerable people. The climate crisis is also taking its toll, with many families losing crops as a result of Hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020. And the war in the Ukraine is only going to make the situation worse.

Nearly half of children (47%) in Guatemala are chronically malnourished — in Quiché, the district where Alicia and her grandchildren live, that number climbs to 2 out of 3 children under the age of 5. 

[Read: The disaster that never ends]

Hunger and lack of job opportunities are two of the most common reasons why Guatemalans like Alicia’s daughter are leaving to find work elsewhere.

“She has told me that she plans to travel to the United States because there’s more money there,” Alicia says. “I am here to take care of them because I want my grandchildren to have a good future.”

Alicia, 50, with her grandchildren at their home in Quiché.

Francisca, 19, works as a weaver in Quiché, and her husband is a bricklayer. But even though they both work, food is scarce and expensive. And Francisca isn’t just eating for one — she’s pregnant with her first child.

“When there are shortages, I feel hungry and thirsty and can’t work,” Francisca says. “I have no strength, that’s what worries me.”

Francisca weaves at her home in Quiché.

The hunger crisis is putting pregnant women like Francisca and their babies in jeopardy. The leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 is complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, and hunger increases these risks. It also increases the risk of stillbirth, low birth weight and stunting, leading to an intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.

[Read: Meet girls on the front lines of South Sudan’s hunger crisis]

Plan International Guatemala is providing lifesaving support to more than 6,000 rural households like Francisca’s that are at risk of moderate or severe food insecurity. Our programs include cash and voucher assistance, so families can purchase what they need with flexibility and dignity. We’re also providing essential nutrition and maternal and child health services.

Plan staff visits a young mother in Quiché.

Petronilla, 22, lives in Alta Verapaz with her 1-year-old daughter. Her husband works in Honduras.

“I sell what I weave and with that I buy food,” Petronilla says. “Plan International is helping us with cash, so that my daughter can grow up well.”

Petronila with her 1-year-old daughter.

In addition to cash and vouchers, we’re helping families to generate new sources of income, including farming and livestock rearing. We’re also working with community groups to help them produce animal feed, both for their own farming needs and to sell.

Oscar Caal Quej is an agricultural technician for Plan Guatemala.

“My work consists of identifying families who are living in poverty, providing technical assistance and training communities in agricultural and livestock production,” Oscar says. “Plan International has provided support to people with really low resources in this community. And this is creating a lot of opportunities for men, women and children.”

Oscar measures a boy’s growth at health center.

Young women like Paulina, 24, are seizing these opportunities. Paulina runs a shop where she bakes and sells bread, and she earns additional income by tending sheep and sewing. She recently participated in one of Plan’s skills training programs, which helped her grow more confident.

Paulina has three siblings who moved to the U.S., but she hopes to build a better life closer to home.

“Plan International has supported me a lot with my self-esteem,” Paulina says. “I used to have depression, I didn’t love myself. But they gave us training on self-esteem, and many other topics. Then I understood that I am worth a lot as a woman, which helped me a lot. After that I started my business.”

Like Paulina, expectant mother Francisca has big plans, and she’s confidently investing in her child’s future.

“I am part of a Plan International entrepreneurship project which supports women with their businesses,” Francisca says. “I have just started with the project, but some women have received seed capital so that they can move forward with their small businesses and have also received support for their animals.”

Francisca is hopeful for her child’s future.

Francisca hopes that her child won’t have to endure the same hardships she has.

“My dream for my future is to get ahead, to be a better person and to help my community move forward,” she says. “I have many goals. I hope to start a business, and I want to start a farm. I know that Plan International will help me achieve this ambition.”