Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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By ChildFund Australia and ChildFund Timor-Leste

In the mountainous countryside of eastern Timor-Leste, several hours from the country’s capital Dili, there is a village that is extremely poor and so remote that families living there need to walk almost three hours just to reach the nearest health facility.

It is a world away for many people in Australia, but for Ana and her family, it is home.

At only two years old, Ana has her whole life ahead of her. But extreme poverty and the challenging circumstances in which Ana was born into, are subjecting her to childhood malnutrition and preventing her from reaching her full potential.

Ana and her family live in a household of 17 people, who are together surviving on less than $4 a week. Until recently, Ana’s diet consisted of mostly porridge made from rice and water.

‘I was so afraid …  Ana didn’t want to eat’

About 12 months ago, Ana experienced childhood malnutrition. She was extremely unwell and her life was at risk. A severe worm infection worsened Ana’s condition. Her mother, Maria, noticed that Ana was losing her appetite and that she had stomach pains and diarrhoea. Eventually, Ana stopped eating and began losing the already little energy and strength that she had.

Maria was extremely worried about Ana, and called on a community health volunteer in the village for help. 

“I was so afraid when I saw Ana didn’t want to eat,” Maria said.

The community health volunteer, trained through ChildFund’s health and nutrition program, immediately referred Ana to be treated for malnutrition. 

Ana received medication to treat her worm infection and was placed in a supplementary feeding program where she received nutritious food. Eventually, Ana became stronger and her health improved.

Apart from a small grocery store 10km away that sells basic supplies, there are no health or education facilities near Ana’s community. Few families can afford their own vehicle, and public transport to the nearest health facility passes through the village only once a day. This is why community health volunteers, who live and work in the villages they serve, are essential to helping children like Ana stay safe and healthy. 

The burden of childhood malnutrition

Nearly 1 in 2 children, or 49 per cent, of children under the age of five in Timor-Leste are stunted – a condition caused by a form of malnutrition – compared to only 2 per cent in Australia.

Children like Ana are more likely to become malnourished because of poverty and a lack of access to health facilities and knowledge in their communities about good nutrition.

Childhood malnutrition can have lasting negative implications on a child, their family and community. It increases healthcare costs, and can prevent children from finishing school, which can limit their future job opportunities, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

How can we prevent childhood malnutrition?

Nearly 1 in 2 deaths in children under the age of five are linked to a form of malnutrition.  But malnutrition in children is preventable and treatable.

With your support, we can help train community health volunteers to regularly monitor children’s growth for signs of malnutrition. These volunteers also learn how to identify common childhood illnesses and make referrals to health specialists. They also help ensure mothers attend postnatal and antenatal care, and lead mother and father support groups. The work of these local health volunteers in rural and remote communities, where health facilities and doctors, midwives and nurses are hard to access, can be lifesaving for children like Ana.

With your donation to ChildFund’s Malnutrition Appeal, we can also provide supplementary feeding programs to treat malnutrition in children, support families to access de-worming medication for their children, and run community cooking, nutrition and health workshops for parents and caregivers. 

Through a ChildFund-supported cooking workshop, Maria learnt about the nutrition content of various local foods, and how to include some of these foods in Ana’s diet. 

Today, Ana has fully recovered from childhood malnutrition, and Maria incorporates vegetables such as moringa, a highly nutritious plant that she sometimes gets from neighbours or other members of her community, in the rice porridge she makes for Ana. 

Good nutrition is essential for a child’s health and development, which is why it is a key focus of ChildFund’s health programs. The first 1,000 days – from the time a woman becomes pregnant to her child’s second birthday –  is critical to a child’s healthy development. 

ChildFund’s health and nutrition program in Timor-Leste focuses on supporting mothers like Maria to care for themselves and their children during these first 1,000 days, and longer. Make a donation to ChildFund’s Malnutrition Appeal today and you can help to train community health volunteers, assist parents to access child health support groups, or facilitate cooking workshops for families.

By ChildFund Australia

For International Women’s Day 2023, we’re celebrating women like Atina who are supporting maternal and child health, so that  mothers and their children can have safer and healthier lives. 

Atina is just one of many women around the world inspiring her community every day of the year.

Atina is a single mother to five children living in a remote community in Lautem, Timor-Leste. Remarkably, Atina has also been a ChildFund Timor-Leste community health volunteer in her village for nearly 20 years – that’s on top of being a full-time, single mother!

When she isn’t working as a community health volunteer, she takes care of her children and runs the family farm. She isn’t afraid to defy gender roles, undertaking work that a man in her community would traditionally do – working in the fields of her family farm to grow healthy food she can feed her children.

Atina received basic maternal and child health care training through ChildFund Timor-Leste and local partners to prepare for her role as a community health volunteer. 

Often, Atina is the only person able to help women in her community access maternal and post-natal health care. Apart from a small grocery store that sells basic supplies, there are no health or education facilities near Atina’s community. Few families can afford their own vehicle, and public transport to the nearest health facility passes through the village only once a day. This is why community health volunteers like Atina are essential to helping mothers and children stay safe and healthy, and deserve to be recognised this International Women’s Day.

Supporting mothers through dangerous births

“I help young mothers have a safe delivery by getting them to the community health centre nearby,” Atina said. “I am not trained in home births, but I have had to help one emergency case.”

A few years ago, Atina heard one young woman, Octa, in her village, had gone into labour. Atina rushed to Octa’s home to see how she could help. When she examined her, she saw that Octa was very close to giving birth. 

In a panic, Atina called for an ambulance, but none were available. She had to rely on the basic health care training she’d received from ChildFund to guide her through the birth. Atina steadied herself and told Octa to push. 

Soon after, a healthy baby girl named Bella was born. Unfortunately, Octa fainted immediately after the delivery and Atina rushed to find any available vehicle to take her to the health centre.

“While I was looking for a car, I was really worried that something would happen to her while I was gone and that no one would know what to do. I went back to her house to try to wake her up,” she said. After some time, Octa woke up and her strength returned.

Atina gave birth to her children at home, and she knows just how difficult and dangerous it can be when there is a lack of maternal and child health care.

“I always wanted to deliver at the hospital or a community health centre, but there are lack facilities to support me going there so I had no choice but to deliver at home,” she said. 

Preventing childhood malnutrition

Atina empowers new mothers with the knowledge and resources to access routine vaccinations at a nearby community health centre, and helps to prevent and treat childhood malnutrition. 

Poverty and lack of access to health facilities and knowledge about good nutrition in Atina’s community means children are more at risk of becoming malnourished, a condition that can be life threatening if it’s not treated.

Atina monitors the growth of children under five years old in her community, measuring and recording their weight and height, for signs of childhood malnutrition. If she finds a malnourished child she will refer them to a treatment program where they receive supplementary nutritious food.

Atina also helps to facilitate cooking, nutrition and health workshops for families so they know how to make nutrient-dense meals for their children. 

“Atina is a very dedicated woman and if it weren’t for her, I couldn’t do all of this,” Octa said. “My daughter, Bella, is now six years old and is a student at the local primary school.”

Atina is respected in the community for her commitment to supporting mothers and children to lead safer and healthier lives. She is very passionate about her work as a community health volunteer.

“I wanted to volunteer because I like to help my community, particularly the younger children under five years old,” Atina said.  

“I love helping my community understand basic health. I love to see that there are more people bringing their children to the health centre for checkups and routine vaccinations compared to past years.”

Empowered women like Atina are vital to creating healthier communities. This International Women’s Day, celebrate the women in your life who are making a positive difference in your life and this world. You can help to make a difference by donating to ChildFund Australia’s Malnutrition Appeal.