Good nutrition begins from birth in the mountains of Timor-Leste

Working to achieve zero hunger in one of the world’s newest, and most malnourished countries.

Caleb Gorton
Oct 26, 2017 · 4 min read

A crowd of around 200 people gather at Manulete Health Post in the mountains of Timor-Leste’s Ermera district. Parents, mostly pregnant women and nursing mothers, are here to have their children checked for malnutrition.

More than 67 percent of children in Ermera are stunted — the highest rates in Timor-Leste. Health staff, with support from World Food Programme, weigh and measure the children. For families in this remote community, this is one of the few chances they have to access medical assistance. Mt Ramelau, Timor-Leste’s highest peak, can be seen from the remote health facility, located 70 km away from the capital, Dili.

Life after independence

Timor-Leste is known as one of the world’s youngest countries, after becoming an independent nation in 2002. Fifteen years on, it’s also one of the most malnourished — with the nation having some of the highest rates of stunting in the world.

Life in Timor-Leste after independence hasn’t been easy. The proportion of hungry people in Timor-Leste has fallen by more than 10 per cent over the last decade. It remains, however, the world’s tenth hungriest country and the hungriest in Asia. The 2017 Global Hunger Index (GHI) rates Timor-Leste’s levels as “serious”.

The first 1,000 days

The first 1,000 days are the most critical time of a child’s life. If they aren’t getting enough to eat, children’s brains, immune systems and bodies don’t grow as they should. Stunting has lifelong repercussions for children, and it cannot be reversed as they grow older.

Currently in Timor-Leste, 53 percent of boys and 47 percent of girls under 59 months of age are affected by stunting — making Timor-Leste one of only three countries where over half of children suffer from chronic malnutrition, according to the 2017 GHI.

The fight against malnutrition

Once a month, parents can visit Timor-Leste’s Integrated Community Health Services, as known as SISCas. These visits are a chance for parents to identify early signs of malnutrition in their children, and learn how to address it through an improved, and more diverse diet.

At the SISCas, WFP and health staff deliver nutrition education and cooking demonstrations for parents.

Angelo Martins from WFP’s Ermera Field Support Unit, together with the District Public Health Officer, demonstrate how to cook nutritious and healthy food. They use Timor Vita, a locally-produced specialized nutritious food, and locally available foods such as green vegetables, eggs, carrots, sweet potatos and beans. They work with parents to increase dietary diversity and incorporate accessible ingredients into meals.

Rural communities face additional challenges

For the families in Ermera that brought their children to be checked for malnutrition, the fight against malnutrition has additional challenges.

As the climate changes, these families are under increasing pressure to find enough to eat. Two thirds of Timorese rely on subsistence agriculture to survive. Children who are poor and who live in rural areas are more likely to be stunted than their urban counterparts, so need extra nutritional support to stay healthy.

Ermera is one of WFP’s six priority areas across the country. WFP is committed to working with pregnant women across 125 health centres in six municipalities in Timor-Leste. For young children in one of the world’s youngest nations, accessing healthy and nutritious foods will be some of the greatest challenges they face.

WFP’s work in Timor-Leste

  • From January 2015 to August 2017, 22,120 boys and 21,687 girls under five have been treated for moderate acute malnutrition.
  • 56,865 pregnant or nursing mothers have also been treated for acute malnutrition.
  • In 2017 so far, more than 7,000 mothers, fathers and guardians have received nutritional education to raise awareness on the importance of good nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life and good infant and young child feeding practices.

Find out more about WFP’s work in Timor-Leste.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme