Stories

This was my first trip to Timor-Leste and I didn’t know what to expect. Looking at the statistics during my desk review, basic health care is a massive challenge in this corner of the world.

This country has some of the highest rates of newborn deaths in Asia, and the remote villages like the ones I was about to visit in Liquicia where ChildFund works, are among the most dangerous places for babies.

As we made our four-hour journey through the mountains, I reflected on the root of the problem. As with other countries where conflict and occupation has spanned entire generations, Timor-Leste was crippled by deliberate famine, population displacement, destruction of its infrastructure (estimated at 80 percent destroyed), and had its social structure upended by the loss of a third of the population.

The country has had to rebuild from scratch, and to its credit, things have been moving in the right direction, albeit with a long way to go.

The villages were not much more than a cluster of barebone houses lining a dirt road. I was happy to see electricity had made it to these hillsides, but it was very dry, and I’d been told by our team that several healthcare centres in our project areas still struggled with accessing water needed for basic services.

Healthcare centres are rare. Facilities were targeted during the war, and many of the country’s doctors and medical professionals were forced to flee. Women in remote villages often walk several hours in search of help for their sick children.

When I arrived at the community gathering, I was struck by how young the majority of people in Timor-Leste were. The country lost so many people during Indonesia’s occupation. More than 60 percent of Timor-Leste’s population is under the age of 25. In neighbouring Australia, where I live, it is less than half that. The health repercussions of this are something I have to think about as ChildFund looks at future programing here – there is a new generation of young Timorese who need support as they start getting married and having children. Most have limited maternal, child or sexual reproductive health knowledge and services. How can we work together to turn that around?

The remote villages in Timor-Leste lack services and expertise, but the young people I met were eager to embrace anything that could help their communities prosper.

It is deeply unjust that in a country just 160 kilometres off Australia’s coastline, women and their babies lose their lives during childbirth, in terrible conditions and from causes that are completely preventable.

Yet this is the daily reality in Papua New Guinea (PNG), particularly for the 85 per cent of the population that live in rural and remote areas.

No woman should die giving life. Nor should any woman see the child she has carried for nine months pass away because she could not get the help she needed while giving birth.

The conditions in which women in PNG give birth would shock many Australians. Rural health clinics, where they exist, are rudimentary and lack even the most basic equipment.

Staff are often under-trained, and few in number – unable to cope with the vast health needs of impoverished communities. Doctors are in scarce supply. For many women in Central Province, where ChildFund works, the closest doctor is a four-hour drive away.

Due to this dire lack in health infrastructure, most women have no choice but to give birth at home, and rely on traditional birth attendants to assist them.

The latter are without resources, and use whatever tools they have available. These may include sharpened bamboo to cut the umbilical cord, a used produce sack for the mother to lie on, and plastic bags instead of gloves.