Reporting by Zoe Hogan, ChildFund Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste has some of the highest rates of maternal and child mortality in the world. More than 5 percent of Timorese children die before their fifth birthday, in comparison to 0.4 percent and 0.8 percent of children in Australia and the U.S., respectively, according to UNICEF reports.
Through health, water and sanitation projects, ChildFund is working to save children’s lives by increasing community knowledge about the prevention and treatment of common diseases.
Last week, the Ministry of Health in Timor-Leste organized a national conference on non-communicable diseases. ChildFund was one of the conference exhibitors, setting up an educational booth about our community health programs in Timor-Leste. Staff members provided antibacterial soap, health information and hand-washing advice to conference attendees and passersby, including university students, local children, academics and dignitaries.
The exhibit caught the attention of Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who spent 10 minutes at ChildFund’s booth, demonstrating proper hand-washing techniques with ChildFund Timor-Leste staff.
Hosted by the Ministry of Health, ChildFund Timor-Leste, Church World Service and the World Health Organization, the conference, held in the capital city of Dili, sought to improve collaboration and strategic planning between government and NGOs in the health sector.
“People who are poor or who live in underserved communities have less access to medical care and good nutrition,” said Dr. Nelson Martins, Timor-Leste Health Minister. “They face greater environmental health hazards and are harder to reach through outreach and education efforts. So as we move forward, we understand that we must also address the social and economic factors that can put people at greater risk for chronic disease.”
Martins also visited the ChildFund booth, asking numerous questions about ChildFund Timor-Leste’s health projects in rural communities.
Throughout the conference, ChildFund staff engaged young people at the event, with competitions to test their hand-washing and fingernail-cutting techniques. In partnership with the Alola Foundation, ChildFund also ran a trivia quiz about nutrition and maternal health. Nearly 250 conference-goers participated in these fun and educational activities. Prizes included practical items like towels, nail cutters and T-shirts.
Guest post by Annie LePere
Annie LePere completed her master’s of public health while working for the Child Sponsorship department of ChildFund International. She was a community educator for the Sexual Assault Response Program in Lynchburg, Va., for three years before leaving to be a full-time mother. She recently returned from a volunteer mission trip to Haiti.
We were sitting under a mango tree when a young girl came by carrying a five-gallon bucket. She walked over to the community well and filled it. Balancing the full bucket on top of her head with one hand, she walked away. Then she came back and did it again. The third time she came back, we jumped in to help.
I was in Grand Goave, Haiti, about 10 miles from the epicenter of the massive earthquake that struck in January. I had joined a medical mission team from Bedford, Va., to use my background in community health and past experience working at ChildFund.
Rubble and trash still litter the streets, bridges are still impassable and tents are still up as far as the eye can see. In a country familiar with disasters, the earthquake has become another speed bump on the road to progress. People walk around the piles of rubble, trucks drive through the river and families have turned their tents into homes.
Yet, sadly, for many children living in Haiti, childhood has been lost. It was lost for the 8-year-old girl carrying water. It was lost for the 16-year-old young mother bringing her toddler to our clinic. It was lost for baby Woodley, a 4-day-old infant who had nothing to drink but water because his mother was unable to care for him.
Despite all of these hardships, it’s hard to break the spirit of a child and we found evidence of that spirit. It was there in the toddlers waving and shouting “ay oo!” as our truck drove by. It was there in the group of boys playing soccer. It was there in the teenage girl studying chemistry and planning to become a doctor. Schools were meeting in tents, under trees or in a room with three walls. At night, dedicated children would do their homework under the light of a solar-powered streetlight.
The biggest need identified by the mission was sanitation. With no running water other than a community well and people living on every available patch of land, families have to work hard to stay healthy. My background is in violence prevention, not sanitation. But I knew that ChildFund has an excellent track record in this area so I called for help.
Thus, I arrived in Haiti with an instruction manual for implementing the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) program developed to help community educators teach their peers how to treat and protect water. I had planned to teach some basic information about hand washing and walk the medical coordinator through the program to implement at a later date. But the day before I arrived, a cholera outbreak was identified. With this threat looming, I became the community educator. I was asked first thing on a Monday morning to speak to school children, and throughout the week I gave classes to parents.
Without the WASH materials, I would have been unprepared. As it turns out, the way to prevent cholera is to use the WASH techniques. Cholera is a scary disease, and every Haitian I spoke with was scared. But it can be prevented by treating and protecting the water supply and by washing hands. As of the mid-November, there were no cases of cholera reported from Grand Goave. So far, this area appears to have survived another challenge.
In teaching school children about hand washing, I played a game with them to show how germs spread. I filled my hand with glitter, touched a few children and had them touch their friends. At the end of the exercise we were all covered in sparkles.
Now back home in Virginia, I recently picked up my dusty backpack from the trip and was showered with glitter. I haven’t cleaned it up yet because it reminds me of the tenacity of the Haitian people. And it reminds me of hope that can be found in disaster — hope that springs from baby Woodley and his mom, who are now in the care of an aunt and, at last report, are progressing.
Nearly 1 billion people lack access to clean water, which causes hardship, disease and death.
The impact on children is particularly tragic. Each year 1.4 million die as a result of diarrhea, according to the World Health Organization. Most cases of diarrhea are attributable to polluted water and poor sanitation.
In 2009, ChildFund Zambia pilot tested the “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Improvement Training Package for the Prevention of Diarrheal Disease” developed by USAID. The goal was to get more field staff up to speed on
“The WASH program is classic evidence-based best practice that we want our projects to adopt and use worldwide,” says David Shanklin, senior health specialist for ChildFund.
When applied in school settings, WASH interventions—including gender-specific sanitation facilities, hygiene education and safe drinking water—support child health, which furthers educational access and attainment.
The way up and out of poverty can begin with a reliable source of clean water, good hygiene and sanitation. It’s a powerful concept and worthy of our ongoing support so that children can thrive.