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Poverty trap increasing malnutrition levels

Timor Leste's malnutrition rates cause alarm

Veronica with two of her five children (Photo Thomas Ora) Veronica with two of her five children (Photo Thomas Ora)
  • Thomas Ora, Dili
  • Timor Leste
  • October 17, 2012
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Veronica Pereira, a 32-year-old mother of five, knows that her children – especially the under-fives - need nutritious food each day for their health and growth.

However, the current economic situation means she and her husband have a struggle to provide for them; a struggle that is increasingly difficult in one of the world's most impoverished countries.

“We live near the beach. My children and I can only rely on fish caught by my husband every day. From this catch, we can buy rice and vegetables,” she says.

Pereira married Leonardo Barboja in 2004. Three of their children are under five. She often takes two of them to a certain spot on a street in Liquica district to sell her husband's catch.

“My husband goes fishing at 4 a.m. and arrives home three hours later,” she says.

Each month, she can make about US$250.

“The money is not enough to buy all we need. I never buy milk, eggs or meat for my children. We eat rice twice a day, sometimes once a day. The children, especially the younger ones, are suffering from malnutrition,” she says.

According to Hongwei Gao, the UNICEF representative for Timor Leste, 58 percent of the country’s under-fives were recorded as being malnourished this year, up from 56 percent last year.

Only Afghanistan and Yemen recorded worse figures last year, with 59 percent and 58 percent respectively, UNICEF says.

Doctor Daniel Murphy, an American physician and the founder of the Bairo Pite Clinic in the capital Dili, says malnutrition is increasing because more and more people are falling into the poverty trap.

“Many people are so poor, they can only eat things like cassava and taro,” he says.

Every week, his clinic – one of Timor Leste’s most visited health facilities – treats many young children.

“We are trying to find the right program to help children, especially the under-fives, suffering from malnutrition. We have a nutrition specialist,” he says.

Improvements in the country’s infrastructure, transportation and agriculture sectors are vital to help raise living standards and reduce hunger across Timor Leste, he pointed out.

“I think the government has a centralized system, and this should be replaced with a decentralized one. Also, the government should improve economic development in the capital as well as the other 12 districts,” he says.
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