Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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It was around midnight when Judite began feeling a pain that she had never felt before. The mother of six was heavily pregnant with her youngest child Marcelo, but this feeling was different to any labour pains she had experienced previously.

“It was the worst pain,” Judite says. “I was frightened.”

She asked for Odete, the Community Health Volunteer trained by ChildFund in her village, who immediately called an ambulance to take her to the nearest health centre, an hour and half away by car through windy, dirt roads.

Judite (pictured above with Marcelo and daughter Zebifania, age 3) gave birth to Marcelo in the ambulance with the help of a midwife but she had lost a lot of blood.

It was a terrifying experience but at least she had been in the hands of a professional.

In Judite’s village, in the remote mountainous areas of Lautem municipality in Timor-Leste, a lack of health facilities, doctors, nurses and midwives means when medical emergencies occur they can be fatal. Women in Judite’s village traditionally give birth in their homes with the assistance of a “daya”, a birth attendant who is experienced in delivering babies but who does not have a medical background or formal training in midwifery.

Judite gave birth to five of her children at home with the help of a daya. But with Marcelo, she wanted a doctor or midwife present. She had learnt from her previous experiences and from Odete that giving birth at home without a trained medical professional was unsafe and could put her life and her baby’s life at risk, especially when complications occurred.

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.