HIOver the past few months, at a public school in central Colombo, Sri Lanka, children have often fainted in the middle of class. Students, coming from homes in the capital where parents can barely afford a day’s food, have arrived at school quietly starving, as the country continues to grapple with its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
“Parents cannot afford the meat, eggs and milk their children need,” said Sandarenu Amarasiri, a teacher, adding that many also skip school because financial difficulties make them unable to afford transportation, uniforms and shoes. This month, in an effort to tackle rampant hunger, the school started a program of providing basic lunches to students.
“Even us teachers try to give food to our students whenever we can,” he said. “But it’s not easy with the price of food.”
Since the start of the year, the once thriving Sri Lanka has fallen to its knees. As a result of a series of disastrous economic decisions, exacerbated by Ukraine’s corruption, pandemic and war, the country found itself without foreign currency reserves to import essential goods, including food, fuel and medicine. Food shortages, blackouts and school closures have become commonplace for the island’s 22 million inhabitants.
Many warn that it is children who are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Food inflation has continued to rise, hitting a record 94.9% in September according to the Colombo Consumer Price Index, meaning older people can’t afford even basic necessities like rice and dal, while vegetables and meat have become unaffordable luxuries for many households. .
The crippling crisis spawned a mass protest movement that led to the overthrow of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July, who has been blamed for financial mismanagement and rampant corruption. However, a change of leadership, to Rajapaksa ally Ranil Wickremesinghe, has done little to ease Sri Lanka’s economic woes, with experts warning it may be years before the country is back on its feet, despite a $2.9 billion (£2.5 billion) loan. ). of the International Monetary Fund provisionally agreed last month.
With 90% of people dependent on state aid, child malnutrition has spiked across Sri Lanka. According to Save the Children, two-thirds of families are now struggling to feed themselves, while Unicef’s regional director for South Asia, George Laryea-Adjei, said that “children will go to bed hungry, unsure of where their next meal will come from. . “
In the village of Mahavita in Yakkala, about 20 miles from Colombo, mothers speak in despair at not being able to feed their children. Wasanthi Jennifer, 43, a single mother of a 15-year-old son earning a small income from a shop that ran out of her house, recently lacked enough money to even buy kohila leaves, a Sri Lankan herb, from the side of the road to feed her child’s lunch. .
“I was so sad to see my son only eat kohila and rice,” Jennifer said. “He’s a good boy. He eats whatever we have at home without complaining.”
Jennifer says they can no longer afford milk for tea, and she regularly goes without breakfast. “I have to live from day to day,” he said. He also couldn’t afford another much-needed school uniform.
“Once he came back, we washed it so he could wear it the next day,” she said. “Last week, he missed school because his shoe was torn. I had to take a loan from a villager to buy him a new pair of shoes.”
The loan – 4,000 rupees ($10.94) – is more than double the cost of buying shoes for him last year.
In the impoverished areas of Sri Lanka in the north, parents are starting to leave their children in nursing homes because they can no longer feed them. An official working in child protection in the northern province, who was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed to the Guardian that “more and more parents are leaving their children at children’s homes due to financial problems… I have personally met parents who say that they can no longer support their children.”
The 65 million rupees in funding that the northern province’s child services used to receive has been cut, meaning that authorities have no means to step in and help families when finances cause problems. According to figures from the Department of Child Care and Trial Services, In the first six months of this year, 246 children in the north were sent to nursing homes, nearly double the 146 children put in state care in 2021, an increase that local officials directly attribute to the economic crisis.
Experts say the long-term implications on child development could be severe, and undermine Sri Lanka’s 92% literacy rate, which is the best in the region. Ishanka Maduwanthi, 34, another mother who lives in Yakkala near Colombo, said she could no longer afford the school fees to send her five-year-old son to school, and her nine-year-old daughter was also forced to regularly skip school when they could not afford bus fare or food for him. Her husband used to make money as a daily breadwinner but now all the work has dried up due to the crisis.
Fish, milk and chicken have become an old memory, and now a family of four lives on rice, lentils and sambol, a simple dish made of grated coconut. If possible, Maduwanthi buys eggs twice a month in an effort to provide protein for her children, but that too is a boost to the family, and she has recently had to rely on rice donations because she doesn’t have the money to buy it herself.
“Sometimes my daughter feels faint and has severe stomach pains,” she said. “But I did the best I could.”