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TEAM: Children's wellbeing at root of poverty reduction, women say

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
3/11/2007

ENS photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg
Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director of policy and external affairs for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), tells the TEAM conference that children's nutrition is at the core of many anti-poverty efforts.   (ENS photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg)

 
ENS photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg
Debby Watson, left, an independent researcher on children's issues, and the Rev. Diana Nkesiga, laugh as they listen to their introductions.   (ENS photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg)

 
[Episcopal News Service]  Children are especially vulnerable to the dangers of the world and the church has a vital role to play in protecting them, three speakers told the March 11 sessions of the Towards Effective Anglican Mission (TEAM) conference meeting in Boksburg, South Africa.

Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director of policy and external affairs for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), told the TEAM participants that the Anglican Communion is "one of the oldest humanitarian organizations" and it is one that counts both donors and recipients among its members. She also said that the Communion is an organization that knows how to turn "noble thoughts" into reality.

She said she looks forward to exploring partnerships between the WFP and the Communion. Noting Anglicanism's long history compared with WFP's 40-year record, she said, "we can learn from you and I hope that to some degree you can learn from us."

Sisulu reported that "the Anglican Church has expressed a strong interest is supporting us" in the program's latest initiative aimed at ending child hunger and "under-nutrition."

Dr. Debby Watson, an independent researcher of children's issues, said that when she talks with poor children about why schools are important to them, they tell her that they make friends and happy memories in school, that school feeds them and gives them hope, and that they think school can help them not be poor. She suggested that the same might be said about churches, adding that churches could provide all these things for children.

The Rev. Diana Nkesiga, vicar of All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Kampala, Uganda, agreed. Speaking of baptismal preparation classes and baptism itself, she said "instead of just dipping these children, we can nurture them in a holistic way." She also said that churches have a role to play in helping children and adults move through grief.

Child hunger took center stage during Sisulu's talk on the fifth day of the TEAM conference and the one devoted to global responses to hunger. She connected children's nutritional well-being to all of society, but said "the child, the first thing that strikes them is hunger."

WFP's school-feeding programs are aimed at keeping children in school and with their families, even if it is in their extended families if their parents have died from AIDS, she said.

Children who regularly attend a school with a WFP feeding program eat at school and, once a month get a "take-home rations" of maize, peas or bean, fish oil and salt. The food is an incentive for families to keep their children in school where they can get medical care, too.

In the case of orphaned children, Sisulu said the feeding programs can keep children in their extended families because the food they bring home makes them an asset to the family, not an unwanted liability. Besides, with the number of AIDS orphans growing exponentially, "even my church cannot build enough orphanages."

Sisulu also noted that HIV/AIDS prevention is part of WFP's efforts, again through the food supply. Adequate nutrition gives HIV/AIDS medication a better chance to work in those people who have access to the drugs, she said. The connections run deeper, Sisulu said, noting that women produce 90 percent of the food in Africa and if they cannot work because they are caring for a family member with AIDS or if they themselves become sick, they cannot produce food.

"HIV/AIDS takes out the most productive people," she said.

The school feeding programs that the WFP supports have an impact on HIV/AIDS, she said. Because the programs supply food for families, girl children have less incentive to find food for themselves and their families in safe ways. "If you are hungry and the girl child brings food home, [the mother or grandmother] looks the other way and doesn't ask questions," she said.

Knowing there is food at school for them and for their families keeps children in school, Sisulu said, and that's important. "Without a vaccine in sight, education seems to be one of the more effective ways of preventing the spread of AIDS," she said.

Recalling the Gospel of John's version of the 5,000 in which Jesus feeds the crowd with the food offered by a poor boy, Sisulu said that the boy and Jesus made it possible for many to share food when there was very little. She contrasted that situation to the current food surplus in the world and said "there is just too much food in the world for anybody to be starving."

She said that the WFP is "forever questioning" that inequality and dealing with the difficulties of weak infrastructure that prevents food from getting to where it needs to go, among other reasons for the unequal distribution. The WFP tries to address the systemic issues behind the unequal distribution.

"I'm sorry to say this but we might say that we are in a growth industry," Sisulu said, adding that the WFP sometimes seems like "the giant soup kitchen for the world."

"We need to do so much more ... to ensure that fewer people need to come to the soup kitchen in the future," she added.

Watson urged conference participants to talk to children about their poverty rather than just rely on statistics when considering the cures. "Children will help us find solutions to their problems," she said.

When she has talked with children, they tell her about their concerns for their material well-being, their health, the need for the opportunities that schools and a strong family network provide and about their longing to be cared for. That last need is about the security that comes form "knowing you can rely on someone who loves you enough to provide you with your basic needs," she said.

Nkesiga said children face many deaths even if they survive beyond their first five years of life, what she called deaths of the spirit.

"They grow up staring death in the face and for a great part of their lives, they face loss after loss after loss," she said.

Children need help dealing with those losses if they are to move through their grief and become vital adults, Nkesiga said.

Using the example of the large number of Ugandan families who have taken in orphaned children, Nkesiga said families often become disillusioned when the children they take in rebel against them and act out in anger. Here they are, she said, "simply doing what Africans do -- they are taking care of the children of their sisters and brothers," but they often watch those children fail to respond to their care.

Those children need help to grieve their losses -- and so do the adults, Nkesiga said. However, "as we move from crisis to crisis," Africans have lost their cultural traditions of grief. "Before we've grieved one death there is another death on our doorstep," she said.

Nkesiga's work as a bereavement counselor has shown her that children are told not to cry in the face of such losses but she said children tell her that "they didn't know where to take their sadness."

No one, she said, should ever underestimate the value of grief work and spiritual care in helping all people become fully human.

More than 400 people from 30 of the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces are attending the March 7-14 TEAM conference to review the Communion's response to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and how the church can do more as one of the world's largest grassroots development networks. The TEAM conference is in part a follow up to the first-ever pan-Anglican conference on HIV/AIDS, which was hosted by Cape Town Archbishop and Primate Njongonkulu Ndungane in Boksburg in 2001.

The conference is also meant to "encourage a prophetic articulation for an Anglican theology which supports witness and action for social justice."

More information about TEAM is available at the conference website. Continuing ENS coverage is available here.