Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

I am a director on the board of ChildFund Australia and recently I visited ChildFund’s programs for children in Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste is home to over 1.1 million people, 70% of whom live in rural areas. Against a backdrop of limited socio-economic growth, children and youth in Timor-Leste, particularly those in living rural areas, experience extreme poverty. The majority of students do not continue schooling after grade four.

Gains have been made since independence in 2002 but there is a long way to go – especially for children. Sixty per cent of the population is under the age of 25.

These sobering facts were on my mind as we travelled to Liquica – a stunningly beautiful, mountainous district nestling many small villages. Amidst this beauty the difficult terrain creates myriad daily challenges for the people who live there.

ChildFund is working with local communities and partners in Liquica to improve nutrition, health and education. We visited two schools and sat in on a reading project being facilitated by ChildFund’s local partner Mary McKillop Today.  The project is focused on literacy and reading.

Happy and enthusiastic six-year-olds were learning the words for different professions and choosing puppets depicting what they would like to be when they grow up. Among the featured professions were teachers, police, doctors, and nurses.

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.