Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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.

A life-threatening disease like malaria can kill people of any age. Helena, aged 57, from Timor-Leste knows this only too well.

After feeling pain and suffering from high fevers for three days straight, Helena was worried that she might have contracted the disease. “My whole body was weak, I had a headache and couldn’t even taste food because it was so bitter. I thought these might be signs of malaria,” she says.

A visit to a doctor in the capital of Dili confirmed her fears. “The doctor gave me a medicine to drink then two days later, I felt a little bit better. I could go out for a walk and look after my house.”

According to the World Health Organisation, Timor-Leste has made huge strides in the prevention and control of malaria. Over the last decade, the number of malaria cases has dropped from 220 for every 1,000 people to fewer than 1 case per 1,000.

This massive fall in infection rates has largely been due to improved diagnostics, political commitment from the Timorese government, and support from organisations like ChildFund Timor-Leste  and the Global Fund to Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.