When CARE Australia’s Lydia Hanna met Leonora in Timor-Leste, it was easy to see why CARE partners with women to improve the lives of whole communities.
Before CARE came to Leonora’s remote village in Timor-Leste’s Atsabe sub-district, she constantly worried about the poor health of her children. “They looked very small, and they were not putting on weight,” she says. With her husband, Jose, Leonora grew corn and cassava to feed their young family, and if there was any extra, they would sell it at the market to buy other staples like rice. The lack of variety in their diet meant the children were often unwell and underweight.
In 2010, she and Jose joined CARE’s agriculture program in her village and her fears began to abate. They learnt about farming techniques, and received tools, seeds and training from CARE to grow their own kitchen garden. This gave them more varieties of nutrient-rich crops, like bok choy, tomatoes, carrots and green beans so they could feed their children more nutritious food and a more balanced and varied diet throughout the year. Leonora and Jose also became Community Health Volunteers in their village, and continue this work today. They received training from CARE on nutrition, new planting techniques and how to use more seed varieties so they have better access to nutritious food. They took this information to their fellow villagers, helping other families to make the same improvements that they had achieved.
Having had so much success with these new agriculture activities, when CARE began the Safe Motherhood Project in her village, Leonora eagerly took part. She became a mother’s group leader, and has spent the last year working closely with pregnant women, local midwives and CARE staff. Leonora understands the need for better maternal health in her community. She was fortunate to not have any complications when giving birth to her five children, but if she had, there could have been dire consequences as there were no doctors or midwives near her village, or even in the closest town, a two hour walk away.
As the group leader, Leonora encourages women to attend monthly health check days run by the government for pregnant women and young children. She also gathers her mother’s group together and passes on health messages from the training she has received from CARE. She talks to them about having a safe birth plan, which means they would organise with their husbands and families to plan for a birth at a health centre with medical assistance. Leonora also talks to them about birth spacing, and how to have a conversation with their husbands about when and how many children to have, and whether they should use contraception.
“I learned about birth spacing and safe birth planning, and also kitchen gardens and nutrition from CARE. And when women are not able to attend the meetings, I visit them and make sure they are okay,” says Leonara. There is now a health post in her village, which has a doctor and midwife. Leonora actively seeks their support when she knows one of the mothers in her group needs medical care. “Last month, one of the newly pregnant mothers missed the health day. When I went to visit her she looked very pale and not well. I went and called the CARE staff, and together we visited her and then I made sure the doctor was able to visit. Her complications are getting better now.”
Her own family has also benefited from her newfound knowledge. She developed the confidence to have a conversation with her husband about birth spacing, and now uses contraception. “My first two children were not planned. But after that I spoke with my husband, and since my last child we both agreed to use contraception.” In Timor-Leste, many women don’t feel comfortable talking to their husbands about contraception, and have much larger families. On average, a woman will give birth to her first child at the age of 22, and often younger in rural areas. With an average family size that is 2.8 times larger than in Australia, women often face health risks, and babies are often born underweight or premature.
The kitchen gardens have also been a big success. As well as providing her family with more healthy meals, the last harvest was so plentiful, her family was able to sell the excess and earned $150. With this money, she bought school uniforms for her children, invested in a solar panel for her home, and also bought herself and her husband wedding rings!
When you meet women like Leonora, it’s easy to see why CARE partners with women to improve the lives of whole communities. “I want to spread the health message to my village so everyone can be healthy.”
CARE is currently providing seeds, tools and agricultural training to families in need. You can improve their food security by making a donation today.