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A battle against hunger and child malnutrition in Timor-Leste

Joseta only has a meal once a day, usually porridge made with rice and water. If they are available she will add papaya leaves, taro or cassava.

It was especially difficult when she was pregnant with her youngest child, Graciano.

“I felt hungry all the time,” Joseta says. “I was eating sosoro (rice porridge), corn, cassava leaves, papaya leaves and a bit of fruit. I rarely ate any meat.”

Today, Graciano is 21 months old but not much has changed for the mother of four, who lives in a remote village in Timor-Leste, where many families are struggling to access enough food to feed their families.

After her husband died, Joseta moved into a home with her children and her mother, and three other families. Together, five adults and eight children share four tiny rooms in a makeshift shack made of wood and corrugated iron sheets.

Joseta stays at home to care for her children and her only income comes from her mother Elisa, who is also a widow and makes a living by growing and selling cassava, papaya, taro and corn.

Poverty and a lack of nutritious food has been detrimental to the health of the family, particularly to Joseta’s youngest child Graciano.

While Joseta did not have much to eat while she was pregnant, Graciano was born at a healthy weight of about 3kg. She breastfed her baby boy for two months before moving him on to plain rice porridge.

“I had a lot of milk, but I stopped breastfeeding Graciano because he kept crying,” Joseta says.

Joseta with her son Graciano, aged 21 months, and ChildFund Community Health Volunteer Odete, who monitors the growth of children in her community to prevent malnutrition.

Graciano was 15 months when he was diagnosed with malnutrition.

“After I stopped breastfeeding Graciano, he got itchy skin,” Joseta says. “He was eating less and less. I was worried about his health.”

ChildFund Timor-Leste Community Health Volunteer Odete was visiting the family to monitor Graciano’s growth – as she has done on a monthly basis since ChildFund’s nutrition project began in the community – when she realised Graciano weighed in at only 7kg. She referred Graciano to the local health post, where he was diagnosed and placed on a treatment plan for malnutrition.

Today, Odete is continuing to keep a close eye on Graciano and is ensuring Joseta takes him to regular health check-ups at the health post.

“The biggest challenge for me is there is no food to feed my children,” Joseta says. “I’m a widow and it is difficult to work and raise my children.”

ChildFund’s three-year nutrition project, which is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), has been running in Joseta’s community for about a year and aims to prevent child malnutrition in six disadvantaged villages in Timor-Leste.

Trained Community Health Volunteers like Odete are regularly monitoring the growth of vulnerable children like Graciano to prevent them from becoming malnourished, and are also educating parents and carers about healthy hygiene practices and how to cook and prepare a range of local nutritious foods to feed their children.

ChildFund will also be helping families grow a wider range of nutritious foods by providing them with seeds and training on how to grow backyard gardens.

Elisa (in yellow) supports her daughter Joseta and her grandchildren by selling vegetables and fruit. They share a home with three other families.

Odete says malnutrition has been a “big problem” in her community. Before becoming a Community Health Volunteer with ChildFund she worked as a Family Health Promoter with the Timor-Leste Government for 15 years. In this role, she was responsible for raising awareness about good health practices and collecting health information from families in her community to assist the Ministry of Health develop better health interventions.

While ChildFund’s project has only started in her community, Odete says it is unlike any of the past projects implemented to tackle child malnutrition in her community and she believes it will make a difference in her community.

“A lot of NGOs have come to our community in the past to address malnutrition,” Odete says. “But it was only capacity-building. They did livelihood activities.”

She adds: “As a Family Health Promoter we did not have any training like we did with ChildFund. As a Community Health Volunteer with ChildFund we received training on how to identify malnutrition, how to share information about maternal health to pregnant women, as well as how to conduct food processing/cooking demonstrations.”

ChildFund Community Health Volunteer Odete measures Graciano’s height.

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