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"In the new Testament, Jesus uses stories of how debtors are treated as a means of helping people understand God's mercy and the obligation to reflect that mercy in our dealings with others, and in the daily prayer of Christians, we ask God to treat our debts in light of our treatment of others' debt to us.
I am a widow. I have three children. Of course, some of them get sick now and then, sometimes they have worms, sometimes malaria, sometimes they only catch a cold. Unfortunately, the hospitals are very far away and when one of us gets sick we cannot travel there. There are some small health centers in the near, but you have to pay for everything there.
My oldest child has a liver problem they found at the health center. But they did not give me any medicines. They just told me to feed him sweets, such as sugar cane. It helps him a little bit.
In Uganda, the government spends $3.00 per person annually on health and education and $17.00 per person annually on debt repayments. One of every five Ugandan children dies from preventable disease before reaching the age of five.
Maria is thirteen years old. She left home after her mother lost her job as a cleaner in the government-run hospital. The government laid off thousands of people because of austerity programs mandated by the International Monetary Fund. Her father was unemployed and there was not enough money to feed the whole family. She is now a prostitute in Tegucigalpa. Maria has no other choice. She needs to eat and live.
According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report (produced before Hurricane Mitch), 50 percent of Hondurans lived below the poverty line, 13 percent lacked access to safe water and sanitation, and 31 percent lacked access to health services. Oxfam International has estimated that devastation from Hurricane Mitch is so great that it will take ten years for Honduras to recover, that is, to return to the levels of poverty and need described in the U.N. report. Meanwhile, the government continues to service $4.1 billion in debt, $147.7 million of which is owed directly to the U.S. government.
Sitting with her father on a wicker mat, three-year-old Zenithou has dark curls and a face that's been destroyed. She's fighting a disease, caused by ordinary mouth bacteria, that eats through her facial muscles, tissue and bones. Her father, Ali, a sieve maker, had to sell 150 sieves before he had the money to take her to the hospital. He comforts his daughter as best he can.
"When she's in pain she takes my hand and puts it against the part of her face that hurts and says to me, 'Daddy, it hurts.' I just stroke her and comfort her but my heart is thumping and thumping."
In Niger, Zenithou's country, there is no war, no famine just constant crippling poverty. Children whose immune systems have been weakened by chronic malnutrition have nothing with which to fight any disease. Simple antibiotics and mouthwash may have saved Zenithou if her illness had been caught early. Niger the poorest country in the world cannot afford these luxuries.
From Bread for the World's 1999 Offering of Letters Kit. Adapted from an article, "Suffering from Plague - The Plague of Debt" in The Guardian, May 11, 1998.
Niger spends three times more money paying off its debt burden than it spends on health and education. According to Oxfam International, debt relief today would save 475,000 children in Niger.
For more information, contact the U.S. Catholic Conference Department of Social Development and World Peace (phone 202-541-3199; website: www.usccb.org/sdwp) or Catholic Relief Services (phone 410-625-2220; website: www.catholicrelief.org).
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