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Once Living in Fear: Guatemalan Mother Leader Transforms Community

“There Was Only Sadness”

Marta, a volunteer mother leader from Chio, Guatemala, is a fighter. Not with her fists, but with prayer and brightly-colored booklets that she carries from house to house in her community. As a 64-year-old mother of nine, she is also a survivor of a violent marriage. Her alcoholic husband died 14 years ago, after years of physically abusing Marta and her children. “I suffered a lot…I never went out. I was locked up. There was only sadness.”

You can see Marta talking about this time in her life, once living in fear, in this video:

A Way Out and Up

Marta started attending church and made a commitment to follow the Lord. Her husband would sometimes beat her when she came home from church. But Marta stayed strong in her faith.

“When I would come back from church, he would hit me. I said to myself, ‘If my husband kills me for worshipping God, then so be it.'”


When Marta’s husband died, she was free to start life anew. And that’s when she turned her misfortune into a wonderful opportunity for the community — with Food for the Hungry’s help.

Guatemalan elderly woman prays and kneels by her bed

A Mother Leader’s Heart for Others

With training from FH, Marta started teaching younger mothers in her community about parenting. In particular, she helps fight malnutrition in children under age five.

Guatemala has the fourth highest chronic malnutrition rate in the world and the highest rate of stunting in the Western hemisphere.

  • 50% of Guatemalan children under the age of five suffer from delayed growth.
  • 58% of indigenous children–the children that FH serves–are stunted.
  • 90% of the indigenous families in Guatemala live well below the poverty line and can’t harvest healthy food.
woman in traditional guatemalan dress teaching hygiene to mother and child

Marta using one of the many colorful diagrams to help mothers and children learn about nutrition and hygiene.

As the mother of nine, Marta knows well how women struggle to keep their children healthy. She’s leading the charge to change Guatemala’s statistics. FH has trained her to inform and coach mothers of young children on how to provide the best nutrition for their children.

Marta starts by teaching women to take care of themselves during pregnancy. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life–including the days in the womb–are key to combatting stunting. Poor nutrition in infancy also contributes to a lack of brain development. That has lifelong implications for any child trying to overcome poverty. By age 3, the brain has reached 80% of its adult size. By fighting malnutrition, Marta is helping each baby reach his or her potential.

And, Marta is helping women feed babies better once the child is born. For example, mother leaders like Marta help coach the woman on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of the baby’s life. She also helps mothers know what kinds of nutritious solid foods to introduce into the baby’s diet, and when.

Stronger Relationships with Babies

Marta’s troubled family past is one of her motivators. She wants other women to know it’s possible to survive domestic violence. “I tell them what happened to me,” she says. “I don’t want them to suffer the pain that happened to me and my children.” Bringing the hidden problem of domestic abuse to light in her community is a first step to eradicate it. Marta wants to see stronger family relationships in her community.

Part of that is strengthening relationships between mothers and babies. FH has played a key role in developing a curriculum for mother leaders that trains young mothers on perceiving their babies’ hunger cues. Babies who are fed when first feeling hungry–but not so hungry that they’re fussy–will breastfeed longer or eat more. And that helps fight malnutrition and stunting.

In a world where mothers are extremely distracted by children, housework, and farm chores, it can be hard for mothers to take time to watch for hunger cues. Marta helps coach them on what to look for, and being in a group with other women helps mothers feel as if they have support to change their parenting habits.

Marta is loving embraced by the next generation, whose lives she has changed forever.

Thankfulness for the Journey

While FH and the mothers in Marta’s community have much reason to thank Marta for her volunteer work, Marta’s also grateful to be useful. “I thank FH because they are encouraging me,” she says. “It’s because of FH that I go out to visit others. Whether it’s morning or night, I don’t notice the passing of time because I’m no longer locked up in my house.”

Due to gifts from financial supporters, FH can continue to send out experienced mother leaders like Marta to transform communities. FH not only trains mothers but also weighs and measures babies monthly, to ensure that they’re growing on schedule. Through women like Marta, the next generation of Guatemalans will be healthier and stronger.

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