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‘I poison my children in order to survive’: The terrible toll of Somalia’s drought

‘I have six children, and this is the only way I can get food.’

Internally displaced women from drought hit area, carry their jerry cans filled with water as they walk toward their shelter at a makeshift settlement in Dollow, Somalia April 5, 2017. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Women displaced by drought carrying water near their makeshift settlement in Dollow, Somalia.


With aid funding failing to keep pace with the ever-increasing numbers of people in need in Somalia, some desperate parents are resorting to sacrificing their children’s health and well-being in order to feed their families.


A million people have been made homeless by five consecutive seasons of drought. With crops destroyed and four million head of livestock lost, Somalis are struggling against all the odds to beat the rising hunger.


Many of them are making their way to the overcrowded displacement camps and squatter settlements in the capital, Mogadishu. 


Tabeellaha Sheikh Ibrahim, on the outskirts of the city, is just one of the thousands of camps that have sprung up. Roughly 600 families trying to escape drought and civil war in southern and central regions of Somalia have sought refuge here.


As is often the case in Somalia, there’s no help available from either aid agencies or the government to the mainly women, children, and the elderly – who are crammed into makeshift shelters – that make up the camp.


With more than six million Somalis currently going hungry, and 1.8 million children aged under five expected to suffer acute malnutrition this year, people in Tabeellaha Sheikh Ibrahim are resorting to increasingly desperate measures to put food in their stomachs. 


Some of these survival methods jeopardise the health and safety of the children, but mothers The New Humanitarian spoke to felt they had no other choice.


Mothers ‘poisoning’ their children with detergent

Some mothers are deliberately making their children sick so they can take them to government-run health centres in the city where there is a chance of obtaining free therapeutic food.


Typically, they force-feed their children water mixed with detergent or salt.


“I have six children, and this is the only way I can get food,” explained one mother, Maceey Shute. “It makes them weak and gives them watery diarrhoea.” 


She takes the sick children to Banadir hospital, hoping she will get nutrition-fortified biscuits and porridge, some of which she then sells while keeping the rest to feed her family.


“I poison my children in order to survive,” she told The New Humanitarian.


No aid workers have visited the families in Tabeellaha Sheikh Ibrahim, no relief is distributed, and there are no health posts. With current levels of aid funding, only half of the people in need in Somalia will be reached between April and June.


Renting out babies

Another extreme survival step is to rent out babies and toddlers to beggars in exchange for a share of the takings.


Amino Ikar Hilowle is a mother of eight children who fled her farm in Bulo-marer village in the Lower Shabelle region. When she first came to Mogadishu, she earnt money cleaning people’s homes and washing their clothes, but she has found begging more profitable.


She roams the city’s streets with an 18-month-old baby on her back, begging outside business centres, hotels, restaurants, and banks. 


The baby does not belong to her.


“We have no food, water, or any other basic necessities for life,” she told The New Humanitarian. “I have entered into a profit-sharing scheme with the mother of this child where she gets a portion of the money I collect from begging.”


“Sometimes I feel guilty. But I have no choice, because I have to feed them and I don’t have any skills to help me get a job.”


Hilowle explained that people are far more reluctant to give her money when she begs alone. 


“When I beg with this baby on my back, people pity me,” she said. “When I take this child with me, I get an average of about $12 worth of donations a day.”


Renting out children is a common practice in Tabeellaha Sheikh Ibrahim. 


Shumey Abukar and her four children recently arrived from Qoryoley in Lower Shabelle. She rents out two of her children to beggar women who pretend they are their mothers. 


She said neither she nor her husband have jobs so she had no choice but to opt for this arrangement. She cannot look for work because she had serious bleeding during a recent childbirth and is sometimes too weak to stand up.


Abukar said she makes about $5 a day from renting out her children. She knows and trusts the woman that takes them so is not so concerned about their safety. 


“Sometimes I feel guilty,” she told The New Humanitarian. “But I have no choice, because I have to feed them and I don’t have any skills to help me get a job.”


Marrying off teenage girls

Another way desperate families make money to buy food is to marry off their underage daughters to older men.


Shute’s daughter, 15-year-old Maryan, was forcibly married to the man who runs the camp shortly after the 11-member family arrived.


“My father told me I had to marry this old man,” Maryan said. “He told me this would improve our family’s life because we would be able to stay in the camp free of charge and receive additional support.”


Maryan said she initially resisted the marriage but eventually gave in because she was so worried about her family’s dire financial situation.


“I have been married for two months, but there has been little improvement in our lives,” she said.


Edited by Obi Anyadike.

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