Just a 15-minute drive outside Islamabad’s affluent neighborhoods, we find the very poorest in the Pakistani capital. They have moved here from other parts of the country to survive by begging.
– We are very, very poor. Look at these poor kids. Most of them are sick and have nothing to eat. Someone should help us out of this poverty, says the mother of seven Kausar to NRK.
She shows the temporary tents they live in. The tents are made of plastic, straw sacks and cardboard. Here has no access to running water. The adults have no jobs to go to, the children have no schools to go to. Most are illiterate.
But the most serious thing is that the children here have been malnourished from birth.
Looking in vain for the mother’s breast
NRK has gone to look at the conditions that the World Food Program and several aid organizations have reported on for several years. Millions of children in Pakistan are so malnourished that their bodies and brains do not develop properly.
One of those who knows why this is so, we meet in one of the other tents. Fatima is 26 years old. She has four children, the youngest is only 40 days old.
The little one looks up at his mother all the time. With the tiny little hand, the baby searches for the mother’s breast. But in vain. The mother has no milk to offer.
– I can not breastfeed my baby because I do not have enough healthy food to eat myself. When we do not get enough food, our children become weak and sometimes they die of malnutrition, says Fatima.
Both children and adults flock around us. Several of the children raise their hands to their mouths to show us that they are hungry. They hope we come with food.
– Please help us, say the women who take me by the arm to get attention. Several of the women are carrying babies.
12 million children
When former cricket star, then politician, Imran Khan was elected prime minister in 2018, he was met with enormous expectations and hopes. In his inauguration speech, he highlighted the malnourished, growth-impaired children.
Khan pointed out that Pakistan is among the five countries in the world where most children die due to poor nutrition. And millions of children are hampered by malnutrition.
In the speech, Imran Khan showed an X-ray of the brain of a healthy two-year-old and of a malnourished two-year-old.
– His brain has not grown as it should. We are talking about 45 percent of Pakistan’s children. Nearly every second Pakistani child in Pakistan suffers from this disease, the prime minister said.
– These children can not compete, they can not move forward in the 21st century. We must help them, Khan promised in 2018.
Chris Kaye, head of the World Food Program in Pakistan, confirms the situation.
– It is estimated that 12 million under five years are stunted. That means 5 million lost children. The problem of malnutrition in this country is really surprising, considering that Pakistan is relatively rich. This is a structural problem that requires a structural response.
Kaye believes that the problem can only be solved through political action. The WFP chief is pleased that the Prime Minister recognizes the consequences of growth retardation for the country’s human capital.
In Pakistan, the World Food Program works mostly with emergency aid, but Kaye is also very concerned about the malnourished children.
– It is estimated that 3 percent of GDP is lost each year due to malnutrition and growth retardation. If the problem is not solved, Pakistan’s future generation will be weakened, he says.
Survives on gifts
Fatima, a mother of four, lights a fire to warm up some of the meat the family has obtained.
Behind this dusty and dirty little community along the road, we catch a glimpse of a minaret. And this particular mosque nearby ensures that the many families do not starve to death. People who are going to pray in the mosque bring food that they put in bags outside.
– I have four small children and due to hunger they can barely live. We are completely dependent on the gifts we receive from the mosque over there. We do not have a job, so how do we buy food? We have no place to live, we only have these self-made tents. We live a life without meaning, says Fatima.
– But how did it go with the Prime Minister’s promises? Has nothing happened?
– Imran Khan has not done anything. He promised to take care of the growth retarded children and he promised to put an end to our misery and worries. But instead of helping the poor, he has made our lives worse, says the mother of seven Kausar.
But not everything is answered all the time. Fatima’s man finds a red drum that hangs under the tent cloth. He starts beating and as the rhythms spread on both sides of the road, people flock to see what is happening.
A boy starts dancing. And the smiles spread slowly among the audience.