IT was barely two hours from sunset when brothers Jacob and James Taranza had their first shower of the day, let alone their lunch.
Without a bathroom, without a home to protect them, the brothers cooled off in a rusting water basin across the old fish market in Barangay Sawang Calero, Cebu City.
The water barely rinsed off the dirt covering their little bodies as their mother, 24-year-old Hazel, had nothing but the melted ice water from the fish vendors to bathe her children with.
A passerby could easily mistake the two for six-month-old twins. They’re not. One is older by four months.
At seven kilos and 72 centimeters (cms) in height, Jacob is severely underweight for a one-year-old child, whose normal body mass index should be at least 10.2 kilos and 76.1 cm.
Eight-month-old James, too, is severely underweight, weighing only six kilos, 3.2 kilos lighter than the ideal weight for his age.
For Hazel, as long as her children don’t catch a flu, there should be nothing to worry about.
The mother, who is five months into her pregnancy with her third child, said she had to stop breastfeeding her children and chose to feed them solid food as early as six months to save money.
The World Health Organization has advised mothers to breastfeed their babies up to three years old.
“Lisud na kaayo kay kapuyon ko’g dali unya mangita sad tag ginagmay nga panginabuhian kay arun makakaon (It was getting hard for me as I also had to look for income to buy food),” she told SunStar Cebu.
With a laborer husband who earns P200 daily, Hazel said she had no choice but to feed her children with whatever solid food was available and affordable, and not buy supplementary milk for the toddlers.
Although the number of underweight children in Central Visayas has “continuously dropped” since 2013 according to the National Nutrition Council (NNC) 7, Sawang Calero Barangay Captain Ariel Yburan said the fact that malnutrition continues to be present in the depressed areas is alarming.
In 2013, 5.28 out of 100 children were underweight. The rate, though, has dropped to 4.9 two years later, according to NNC.
For 2016, based on Oplan Timbang, Carmen, Cebu has ranked 66th out of 100 cities and municipalities with the highest prevalence of underweight children aged 72 months and below.
While Cebu City may not be one of those with high malnutrition cases, Yburan said it is important for the barangays to continue with their educational drives and feeding programs.
This, though, is not the only solution, as the primary steps in addressing the problem should start with the parents, Yburan said.
“No matter how many kids we feed and help, it will end in vain if the parents continue to neglect their responsibilities,” he said.
Yburan admitted that cases of malnutrition in his barangay used to be higher, but the war against illegal drugs has helped lessen the number of underweight children in the area.
“The reason the kids are not healthy is that the parents are too focused on their illegal activities. As the war against drugs strengthens, they also slowly focus more on their kids. But regardless of this, they should be responsible parents,” Yburan said.
Some 700 meters from the wooden cart the Taranzas own, 2-year-old Tiffany Kaye Ahmad sits in a corner of their makeshift house, barefoot and wearing only her older sister’s school blouse without lower garments.
She could’ve joined her peers for afternoon play, but her fragile body could barely keep up the energy the activity demanded.
At 7.5 kilos and 80 cms., Tiffany is one of 20 severely underweight children from ages 72 months old and below in Barangay Duljo-Fatima.
Aida Ravena, a barangay health worker who has been in-charge of Tiffany and her five also malnourished older siblings, said she has been keeping track of the children regularly, but their father could be uncooperative sometimes.
“I’ve been keeping track of them since the eldest was born, but no matter how determined we are to rehabilitate the children, it all boils down to the efforts of the parent,” she said in Cebuano.
A widower, 48-year-old Antonio said the only thing he relies on is his cash assistance from the City Government.
Being partially blind, he said he could hardly find work, and that their usual meal would be rice porridge and extra salt. Out of six children, only the 15-year-old oldest child is still in school, while the younger ones had to drop out.
“It’s very hard for me. I understand that I need to take them to the health center, but it’s tedious sometimes because I have to look for an income,” Antonio said in Cebuano.
Dr. Jujie Bolotano of the City Health Department explained that malnutrition in the city is not only caused by poverty, but by the parents’ lack of attention to their children’s needs.
Like Yburan, she said a factor leading to negligence is the parents’ involvement in illegal activities.
“Addressing the problem of malnutrition is not just the responsibility of the government. It must start with the parents,” she said.