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Helping mothers and children survive in rural Timor-Leste

31-year-old mother of one, Iria, is five months pregnant and expecting twins. But what is often one of the happiest times of a woman`s life can also be the scariest for women in Timor-Leste.

According to the government, 42% of all deaths of women in Timor-Leste, aged 15 to 49, are pregnancy related.

“I’ve had some complications during my pregnancy,” says Iria, from her home in Fohorem, in the country’s western mountain region.

“One day I was vomiting and the pain in my stomach was so severe that I fell unconscious. ChildFund volunteers assisted me to go to the health centre,” she says. “Doctors identified that I’m having twins and they were kicking and moving in positions that made me uncomfortable.”

ChildFund Timor-Leste’s extensive maternal and child health program is funded by ChildFund Australia and the Australian Government’s aid program. Part of the program is training Community Health Volunteers (CHVs), like those in Iria’s village, to share important health information with their community.

As well as communicating information about pregnancy and prevention of common illnesses, CHVs encourage parents and pregnant women to use their local government-run health clinics.

“CHVs came to my home and gave me information about how to stay healthy when I’m pregnant. They also referred me to visit the community health centre,” says Iria. “At the health centre I can access more information about pregnancy, get vitamins and [when they have been born] weigh and check up on my babies’ condition to ensure that they are healthy.

“Now in my second pregnancy I visit the health centre much more often to get more and better care,” she adds.

Without preventative pre-natal care and information about how to prevent and treat illness children are also at risk. While the situation has greatly improved since Timor-Leste achieved independence in 2002, the infant mortality rate is still one of the highest in South-East Asia – 44 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Most Timorese have a story about the loss of a child. “Some of my neighbours didn’t seek treatment during their pregnancy and didn’t take any vitamins. That caused some babies to be disabled and even worse, to die,” Iria explains.

Fonifacia now has two healthy sons.

32- year-old Fonifacia has experienced the loss of two children. “I was 18 when I became pregnant for the first time.  When I reached eight months my baby stopped moving. We went to the hospital to see the doctor but my baby had already died,” she says. “My second baby also died when he was just six-months-old.”

Fonifacia now has two healthy sons, seven-year-old Deonizio and his younger brother, Dean (pictured with Fonifacia), who is 18-months-old.

“I get a lot of information on health from the CHVs when they visit my home. They are really friendly and make us feel relaxed and comfortable enough to ask questions or for clarification,” says Fonifacia.

After attending sessions held by the CHVs she felt more confident during her pregnancy with Dean. “After having complete treatment in the clinic, I gave birth to my youngest son, Dean in the health centre. He was 4.3 kilograms.”

ChildFund also works with nurses and midwives in health centres to increase their capacity in safe delivery, good pre-natal care practices and follow up care that is required by mothers and newborn babies.

Community Health Volunteers have visited almost 5,000 homes and provided vital health training to 1,437 school children. In addition, 47 professional health workers have been trained in safe motherhood and newborn care, two community health posts have been refurbished and 6,000 mosquito nets distributed to families.

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