Starving mum risks premature birth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 October, 2004, 12:00am

Fearing community ridicule, a family on the breadline is reluctant to accept help

Most people associate poverty with elderly people or new migrants, but a charity worker has revealed his shock at finding a pregnant Hong Kong woman who is likely to give birth prematurely due to malnutrition.

He said it was the worst case he had seen since a food bank was established for the needy a year ago.

The case has prompted an academic to warn that red tape is deterring many needy people from approaching the Social Welfare Department for help.

The woman, who would identify herself only as Mrs Law, was recently told by her doctor that she was likely to give birth two or three months early because of severe malnutrition.

Mrs Law, 34, who is five months' pregnant, said she had only been able to afford to eat one meal a day since last month - a bowl of steamed rice seasoned with soy sauce.

Some days she did not eat in order to save food for her two young sons, aged seven and nine.

She and her husband, 41, are both Hong Kong residents but he has an unsteady income as a construction worker, earning just a few thousand dollars for several months of casual work, to support a family of four. But he has been out of work since last month.

Despite living in poverty for three years, the couple were reluctant to apply for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance to avoid being branded as a 'CSSA family' by the community.

'I am penniless and my husband has $8 in his bank account,' Mrs Law said. 'We have to live day by day and keep borrowing money from my relatives, friends and neighbours - $10 from a different person each time. We even have to borrow toilet paper from our neighbours.

'My children always ask why they only have plain rice for meals. I just don't know how to explain and have to hold back my tears. I tell them to drink water when their stomachs growl in the middle of the night.

'My children take buses to classes by themselves because I cannot afford the extra bus fare to take them to school.'

The family, who live in a public housing flat in New Territories East, recently received a warning letter from the Housing Authority for failing to pay rent for two months. Other bills remain unsettled for months, including electricity, gas, water and school tuition for the children.

Last week, after help from the St James' Settlement charity, the family finally accepted reality and resorted to dole handouts after fearing for the health of their children, especially the unborn one.

While awaiting their first payment, a social worker made arrangements for them to collect free food from the food bank run by the settlement charity.

Wong Hung-sang, food bank service manager, said: 'It is the worst case I have come across since we opened in October last year. We had a few pregnant women seeking food from us, but Mrs Law is the first one likely to give birth prematurely due to malnutrition.'

The number of people seeking handouts from the food bank has soared in the past year. Nearly 300 people a day seek help, compared with about 50 a day when it was set up.

Nelson Chow Wing-sun, professor in social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, said the case showed that many genuine needy people were deterred by the bureaucracy in the Social Welfare Department and chose to endure poverty and starvation rather than resort to handouts.