Colombo, Sri Lanka Sri Lanka’s economic collapse has evolved into a full-blown hunger crisis, with half of the island nation’s families forced to feed their children less, according to a children’s rights charity.
The Sri Lankan government and the international community must act now to prevent the country’s children from becoming “a lost generation,” Save the Children warned in a report published Thursday.
Since late 2021, the South Asian island nation has been in the throes of its worst economic crisis on record, fueled by a lack of foreign reserves and rising foreign government debt.
The country of 22 million has sought help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after it defaulted on its $46 billion debt last April.
“Since the Sri Lankan government defaulted on its debt nearly a year ago, rising inflation and food, medicine and fuel shortages and a lack of stable employment have left families unable to cope,” the report said.
While half of Sri Lankan households are reducing their children’s food intake, 27 percent of the more than 2,300 households surveyed report that adults are skipping meals to feed their children.
Nine out of 10 households said they cannot guarantee nutritious food for their children.
The Save the Children report came a day after thousands of workers went on strike in defiance of a government directive declaring several services essential to stop protests against the IMF bailout.
Shashikala Madhuvanthi Silva, a 40-year-old mother of four in Kalutara district, 80 km from the commercial capital of Colombo, told Al Jazeera that none of her children have had a proper meal since the start of the crisis.
“My husband is a tuk-tuk driver, but he doesn’t get much income now because more and more people are opting for public transport because of the higher cost of living,” she said.
As a result, she has been forced to feed her children less nutritious food. “Not that I don’t feed them, but I can no longer afford eggs, meat or fish every day.”
Silva recently started working at a nearby garment factory – her first job ever. “I get 900 rupees ($2.50) for a nine-hour shift,” she said. “What can you do with 900 rupees a day? But I have no choice.”
Renuka (not her real name) is a teacher in the Western Province. She spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity and described the situation at her school. In Sri Lanka, government employees, including teachers, can often be fired for speaking to the media.
“It was a Monday. When I was about to have lunch, I saw a child looking at me sadly. He was almost in tears. When I asked what was going on, he told me that he, his mother and his younger sister only had a few cups of tea over the weekend,” she said.
The teacher said that from that day on she would bring an extra packed lunch for the boy.
“One day he asked me if he could take his lunch home. Instead of eating at school, the boy wanted to take it to his mother and sister.”
“This is about just one family,” said the teacher. “There are many more heartbreaking stories.”
Muditha Dharmapriya, a nutritionist in Colombo, told Al Jazeera he agreed with the findings of the Save the Children study.
“I don’t have the statistics, but it’s true that so many people, maybe as many as 50 percent of households as the survey says, don’t have enough nutrition,” he said.
“According to the Food Guide Pyramid, a child should have two to three servings of meat, fish, and poultry (MFP) per day. But many households in Sri Lanka cannot afford that,” he added.
And it’s not just protein that kids aren’t getting enough of because of the skyrocketing cost of living. A person needs six to eleven servings of carbohydrates, providing the body with 1,500-2,000 kcal per day. Since the economic crisis, says Dharmapriya, that intake has been reduced to almost 900 kcal.
“People can no longer eat rice like they used to. Instead of following a nutritious diet, what happens now is that people eat something to stop the feeling of hunger. They may eat a smaller portion of rice and no MFP at all,” he said.
However, journalist and political analyst Kusal Perera said the findings of the charity’s investigation were “too general”.
“I think the sample of just over 2,300 households from nine districts does not represent every segment of society in terms of income and social status,” he told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Save the Children has warned of “a very real danger of a full-blown hunger crisis” in Sri Lanka.
“This is an emergency that requires emergency response,” said Julian Chellappah, the Sri Lankan charity’s director.