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.

She led an international team in a war zone, helped rebuild communities after Typhoon Haiyan and transformed health and education systems around the world. ChildFund Australia’s International Program Director and proud feminist Margaret Sheehan shares what it is like to be a female leader and why more women are needed in the development and humanitarian aid sector.

When civil war broke out in Yemen in 2015, Margaret was in the Philippines helping to piece together homes and schools that had been destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan.

While she had built a level of resilience in the Philippines working in environments where trauma and devastation were the daily norm, the role in Yemen had its own set of challenges.

She feared for her life when a bomb was dropped near the compound where she was living.

“You would hear bombing over in certain places and you would see the sky light up and then it would quiet again, but this day it was the closest it came.”

“We had to go down to the safe rooms; this bomb went off and the windows blew out, and I just thought, oh god, this is it.”

Margaret was second-in-charge of a team of 12 who had been deployed by UNICEF to write proposals on the ground to raise funds for emergency items such as food and water for families affected by the war.

Living and working in a war zone as a senior female leader, however, meant her role became much more complex than writing proposals.

She found herself becoming a mentor, providing emotional support to her colleagues, particularly for the younger women in her team.

“There is a fair bit of mayhem going on because people are living in these strange environments. There’s a lot of emotional stuff,” Margaret says.

It is because of this that emergency situations need strong women, says Margaret. “You need that rational side, but you also need some gentleness and someone to say it will be OK.”