Family Ecology and Children’s Growth in Rural Timor-Leste

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

This talk will cover three aspects of the relationship between family ecology and children’s growth in rural Timor-Leste:

Rural households in Timor-Leste depend to varying degrees on subsistence farming. Development programs target the expansion of market agriculture. Despite numerous education and intervention programs, children continue to exhibit poor growth by international standards. Our research group has followed ~110 households in mountainous Ossu (since 2009) and ~110 households on the coastal plains of Natarbora (since 2012). Each household is visited every 6-12 months, interviewed about resources, and members of the household are censused and measured ) resulting in a longitudinal data base encompassing approximately 1250 children measured from 1-12 times. Herein, I discuss our use of variable reduction techniques (PCA) to assess whether there are suites of subsistence related activities that co-occur and whether these vary by community.

Periodic resource shortages in early human history selected for plasticity in child growth. In populations now transitioning away from agriculture to a market economy, opportunities arise for traditionally subsistence households to diversify income sources and possibly mediate the risk of small-scale agriculture. Timor-Leste is undergoing this transition; however, little is known about the patterns of household strategies and the effects of rural development on child wellbeing. We derive strategies from 190 households in two rural Timor-Leste communities, and examine the links between resource strategies, household composition and child growth using linear mixed modelling. Children’s z-height, z-weight and z-BMI are well below international standards.

With economic development, subsistence farmers experience increased exposure to new markets, wage labor opportunities and government resource flows. Households face novel decision making tasks with respect to the allocation of work effort to various schemes for resource acquisition. Fifteen years after independence, rural areas of Timor-Leste are developing slowly. Despite numerous education and intervention programs, children continue to exhibit poor growth by international standards. Herein, we use PCA to derive a combined resource-based factor, and then look at family composition and child growth in households that have low participation, diverse practices, or that specialize in one suite of practices.

Debra Judge is an associate professor in the School of Human Sciences at the University of Western Australia. She received her Ph.D in Ecology from the University of California, Davis. Her research employs a range of methods and models to better understand the evolution and social dynamics of family-living species. Her current work focuses on the impact of family structure and resources on child growth in Timor-Leste. Since 2009, her lab has investigated children’s growth relative to family and community characteristics in two ecologically distinctive regions of Timor-Leste. This research follows approximately 1250 children in over 200 families to understand the social, resource, and developmental influences on children’s growth. This work contributes basic science to the development of health policy in Timor-Leste and to NGOs formulating on-the-ground interventions.