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At a glance: Timor-Leste

Mothers help tackle malnutrition in Timor-Leste

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/Soares
Marta Isabel (corner right) along with her Mother Support Group friends teach mothers how to cook nutritious food by using locally available food.

For generations, rural mothers in Timor-Leste have treated child illnesses at home, without guidance from health professionals. Learn how a new community-led initiative is working to bring expert care to these mothers and children.

By Sophie Raynor

CAILACO, Timor-Leste, 5 January 2018 – In the tiny island nation of Timor-Leste, child malnutrition has become a critical public health problem. An estimated 50 per cent of children suffer from a form malnutrition called stunting – one of the highest rates in Asia. But most often, the problem isn’t lack of food – it’s lack of information.

For generations, mothers living in rural areas of the country have treated malnutrition at home. However, many of these mothers do not have access to basic information about child nutrition, including meal frequency and the diversity of a child’s diet. In fact, the most recent national food and nutrition survey found that inadequate feeding practices are the leading cause of malnutrition.

When families have been feeding, treating and caring for children at home for decades, what would it take to get mothers to bring malnourished children to local health clinics? In 13 districts across the country, Mother Support Groups are the answer. Established in partnership between the European Union, UNICEF and Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Health, these groups aim to empower mothers and families by supporting them to seek care for their children and themselves.

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/Soares
Mothers taste the food prepared at the cooking demonstration. The Mothers Support Group held the session to teach mothers in the community how to prepare simple, nutritious meals for their children.

Young women take the lead

Maria and her friend Marta are two new volunteers at a Mothers Support Group in the village of Cailaco. They were trained by the Ministry of Health, and accompany local nurses to visit mothers at home to assist with measuring, weighing and recording information from children.

“We joined the group to benefit our community and other people,” Marta explains. “It’s really important for us.”

Malnutrition is a big problem in their district of Bobonaro. The area has one of the country’s highest rates of stunting and wasting – a more serious form of malnutrition. “Most children [in the village] eat at least twice a day, but usually only plain white rice, with maybe a little potato or pumpkin,” says Marta.

Today, the two women are at the village centre, promoting local food and demonstrating nutritious cooking practices to a crowd of nearly 30 mothers. They work quickly, combining chopped carrots, dark leafy greens and a nutrient-dense local cornmeal in a wok to make a thick paste.

“It was so good I want to try it again,” says one of the mothers.

The meal was delicious, but simple enough that Maria and Marta are confident parents can replicate it in kitchens across the district.

In addition to the cooking demonstration, an official from the Ministry of Health gives the mothers information on foods rich in vitamins, minerals, protein and carbohydrates while encouraging the mothers to keep a diverse diet for themselves and their children. Local nurses were also on hand to measure children’s weight and height, and provide guidance if needed.

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2017/Soares
Anina Joana weighs her child during outreach activities. Nurses come to the Mothers Support Group sessions to help diagnose malnutrition among children and give mothers advice on prevention and treatment.

A healthier future

Marta and Maria are heartened by the positive responses they have received from mothers and children. They admit that they worked for a long time to prepare for today’s cooking demonstration. Was it worth the effort?

Two eager smiles. “Of course!”

The two women are clearly committed to the group – Marta doesn’t even have children yet, but wants to serve her community. Though they’ve been working for just two-and-a-half months, they’re already planning for the group’s future.

“We’ll have meetings every month, and do more demonstrations like this one,” says Maria. Marta nods in agreement.

As mothers slowly leave the demonstration, walking quietly across the grass towards the main road, Maria and Marta wave and wish them a safe trip.

“See you soon!” Maria calls. 

Read next: Communities make children’s early learning possible in Timor-Leste



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