Joana: the embodiment of Argentina’s social crisis

Published: 27 January 2004 0:00 CET

Fernando Nuño in Tucumán

Like every Friday, Viviana Guzman stops in front of the children playing around a disused sugar mill in Santa Ana. She takes some cookies out of her pocket and distributes them. "Summer holiday means a celebration for any school pupil. For Santa Ana children, it means not having breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack", says this nurse.

On her way to the hospital, Viviana stops again at the home of the Morales family. Door-to-door visits are part of her task. She monitors the nutritional situation of the children in the community. "Fortunately, Claudia's are all right", she adds. She is talking about Claudia Morales, the 26-year-old, single mother of six daughters.

"The nutritional supplement provided by the Red Cross over the past year has been vital. Children hardly ate outside school. The families have nothing left after the crisis," says Guzmán.

Standing in the doorway of the Morales place is Joana, fifth of Claudia´s six daughters.

Joana Morales looks at the visitor through a large metal nut found at the sugar mill by her older sister. She is three years old and was born six months before the start of Argentina’s socio-economic crisis.

Her story is not very different to that of four million other children under 14 years of age, who have been suffering from varying degrees of malnutrition in Argentina. They have been the worst affected by the country’s deterioration.


As a result of malnutrition Joana intellectual and physical development has been retarded. More than two years ago, her family became part of the 26 per cent of Argentinians plunged into destitution.

"It has been more than two years without a proper diet, without access to drinking water and with inadequate hygiene," remarks Adriana Martorell, Red Cross programme coordinator in northwestern Argentina.

Joana and her family are among the 125,000 people assisted by the Argentine Red Cross relief programme that includes the distribution of food and first-aid kits in vulnerable communities in the provinces of Tucumán, Salta, Jujuy, Corrientes, Chaco and Formosa. The operation, implemented with the support of the International Federation, is funded by the Italian state cooperation agency.

Neither is Joana an exception in Santa Ana. Eighty per cent of children under the age of 14 have suffered from malnutrition in this community in the last two years. This situation could impede the development of a whole generation.

“You can only reverse the effects of stunted growth in the first two or three years of a child’s life. After that period, its legacy remains. We have to ensure that this generetion does not lack psychosocial development and thus suffer academic failure," explains paediatritian Francisco Cisnero.

Development dynamics

The 15,000 inhabitants of Santa Ana were particularly affected by events of December 2001. The social crisis has given rise to numerous problems for rural communities in northern Argentina: unemployment, inadequate diet and poor water quality, and a lack of family planning, among others.

"The situation is very complex. Poor women with many children do not consider family planning to be a priority. There has been an increase in the risks during labour. Newborn babies are weighing less, have more infections or are born prematurely," adds Cisneros.

After the relief phase, the Argentine Red Cross plans to carry on working in ten strategic communities. At the same time, the Red Cross committees in Tucumán, Salta, Jujuy, Corrientes, Chaco and Formosa are identifying possible development alternatives.

"The ultimate objective is to create development dynamics, such that the communities can pull themselves out of the chronic vulnerability and dependency in which they live," explains Alejo García, programme coordinator.

Meanwhile, a nutritional evaluation and growth survey are being implemented in northern Argentina, with the support of the German Red Cross. The last official survey was carried out in 1995-1996, and is not a useful description after the social crisis.

"More than half of Argentines are living below the poverty line, while 26 per cent live below the destitution line. Any effort to stimulate local development is most welcome in rural areas, because this situation of scarcity is going to last a long time in the north of the country," explains García.

There are acute differences between some provinces. Official figures show that Argentina has the capacity to supply its own population with food eight times over. Through her nut, though, Joana sees only the orange that her mother has given her for dinner.