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Girls' Education in Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, is a half-island nation located in Southeast Asia. With a lack of economic opportunities, Timor-Leste is known to be one of the poorest nations in Asia. Of the country’s population, 42 percent live below the national poverty line, making education a critical resource. Girls’ education in Timor-Leste is a complicated piece of this issue.

Education in Timor-Leste

The government of Timor-Leste recognizes the importance of school for young people as they want all individuals to have access to a quality education that will prepare them for life. In 2010, the Timorese government created a goal to achieve the nationwide completion of basic education in the country. As a result, the educational sector has made significant progress in the last five years, especially for young girls. For both boys and girls, the net enrollment rate grew from 67 percent to 83 percent in those five years. Also, gender disparity decreased substantially in early education.

Young Women are Being Left Behind

Although progress has been made in reaching gender equality, women and young girls are still disproportionately under-represented in undergraduate education. In regards to primary and secondary education in Timor-Leste, girls and boys are almost equal in enrollment. In primary school, 91.3 percent of boys and 90.6 percent of girls participated in their schooling.

However, the gender disparity in education increases as young people approach higher education. For instance, women become greatly outnumbered in higher education. For every 80 women, there are 100 men enrolled. Consequently, the literacy rate for adults 15 and older is 60 percent for women compared to 69 percent for men.

The Challenge of Rural Areas

Girls living in impoverished rural areas have a harder time accessing education in the country. Nearly 37 percent of people aged 15 to 24 are illiterate in rural regions compared to just six percent in urban areas.

Many poor families cannot afford schooling costs such as books, paper or pencils. Also, there is limited access to good facilities in rural areas. Many schools are aging, becoming dangerous for young children to be inside of. Of the basic education schools, 66 percent do not have functioning toilets and 40 percent do not have drinking water.

Timorese student Delfina explains her experience in her local schooling facility before it was renovated by UNICEF. “The building was falling apart. There weren’t enough chairs and the rooms were really crowded. They also flooded when it rained,” she said.

A Hidden Crisis

Young girls are subject to human trafficking and prostitution which interrupts their education but also places their lives in grave danger. Child sex-trafficking is widespread in Timor-Leste, but it specifically targets the girls in the country. There is little formal information available regarding the extent of human trafficking in the country because it is not easily traceable. However, it is still overwhelmingly prevalent. In some cases, poverty in certain remote villages is so severe, families send their daughters to more populated cities or towns to earn money as a prostitute. These girls can be as young as 10-years-old. Many times, girls will become pregnant and return to their villages. They will either have to take care of their baby or be forced back into prostitution.

Organizations Taking Action

Several organizations are helping the nation’s government improve girls’ education in Timor Leste. One, in particular, UNICEF, recognizes the importance of investing in the country’s education system in order to help girls and women receive an education and find their voice in society. The organization focuses on remote, rural areas where schooling facilities can be rare. So far they have helped to build 59 child-friendly schools while also supporting another 62 in the country. These schools are also equipped with learning materials and properly trained teachers.

The World Bank funded the Second Chance Education Project which was a national equivalency program in Timor-Leste. This project aimed to improve literacy rates in adults while also increasing community participation in education. Through this project, nine community educational facilities were created as well as a flexible curriculum that is appropriate for adult students. Because of this program, young adults were given the opportunity to complete parts of their education that they may have missed. This allowed young women to either further their education or pursue a career.

A Bright Future

There is a reason to be optimistic as girls’ education in Timor-Leste progresses with every passing year. Although there is still some work to be done, the status of female education in the country is becoming almost equal to that of their male counterparts. Because the Timorese government and many other organizations recognize the value of educating females in the country, more girls now are able to go to school and realize their full potential than ever before.

– Marissa Pekular
Photo: Flickr

how the media misrepresents Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste is repeatedly referred to as a “tiny half-island nation of 1.2 million.” It is framed as an “impoverished country” that has fallen prey to the resource curse that so often afflicts countries with an oil-dependent economy. In the context of its current political transition, skepticism abounds regarding the country’s ability to rise above the temptations of corruption and combat the country’s high poverty rates.

Despite High Poverty, Timor-Leste Has Made Great Progress

Such media coverage fails to take into account the notable progress being made by this newly autonomous country. In order to avoid detracting from this progress, it is essential to garner an understanding of how the media misrepresents Timor-Leste —a nation whose independence was only recently obtained, after the turn of the 21st century. After centuries of Portuguese colonial occupation, the Timorese fought valiantly for their independence, only to be occupied by Indonesian forces nine days later. This period of occupation lasted a little over a quarter of a century. In May 2002, Timor-Leste gained its independence.

Nearly two decades later, the media repeatedly employs statics in order to evaluate how the newly independent country is functioning. These statistics include a 40 percent poverty rate accompanied by a 60 percent unemployment rate. Highlighting standalone statistics is an example of how the media misrepresents Timor-Leste. This practice becomes problematic because these statistics are not representative of the progress being made.

While a poverty rate of 40 percent may appear grim, this statistic fails to account for the vast decline in poverty since 2001, which was an astonishing 71 percent. In a little over a decade, the number of people living in poverty dropped by roughly 44 percent. The poverty rate statistic also fails to represent the declining numbers of undernourished people. Between 2005 and 2007, the rate was 34 percent; by 2014, the rate was at 28.8 percent.

Despite its progress, the Timorese government does acknowledge that its poverty rates remain high. To combat this, Timor-Leste has partnered with the Asian Development Bank in order to invest in infrastructure. These large investments are being put towards road development, supplying clean water to urban centers and vocational education.

The Media Misrepresents Timor-Leste by Ignoring Its Peaceful Transitions of Power

Rather than reporting on the progress made by these development initiatives, the news about Timor-Leste focuses on the uncertainty—and in some cases violence—surrounding the recently held elections. This uncertainty is the result of the country’s history of frequent political instability. Particularly in 2006, political instability had disastrous consequences. That year, the prime minister was forced to resign from his post. His resignation was the outcome of expansive rioting that resulted in 150,000 deaths and displacements. It is natural that the Timorese would be concerned about a repeat of these events.

However, Giteroano Neves, a Timor-Leste policy analyst, points out that the political climate at that time was very different from the one today. Timor-Leste had just emerged from internal conflict and was experiencing an unexpected influx of oil revenues. Since then, Neves states that the country has been relatively stable.

From 2017 to 2018, the Freedom House Organization updated Timor-Leste’s freedom status from “partly free” to “free.” One of the factors influencing this change in status was the successful 2017 presidential and primary elections, in which the country amicably transferred power between political parties for the second time since independence. According to a European Union observer mission, the elections were “peaceful and generally well administered.” Furthermore, the winning parties are united on the next steps for the country.

The 2018 winning coalition, called the Parliamentary Majority Alliance, is comprised of both the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction and the newly formed People’s Liberation Party (PLP). The PLP promotes investment in the basic needs of the people such as roads, water access, education and healthcare. The party as a whole is also in support of the investment in larger infrastructure projects, such as the South Coast Petroleum Corridor.

Economic Development a Bright Spot in Timor-Leste’s Future

Timor-Leste’s economy is highly dependent on its oil economy, which currently funds the vast majority of the state’s expenditures. However, oil revenues have been declining. Fortunately, the country was recently able to negotiate maritime borders with Australia, which provided Timor-Leste access to 70 to 80 percent of the Greater Sunrise gas field. Even with this acquisition, the country is expanding its efforts to grow other sectors of the economy, such as coffee and tourism.

By insistently reporting on Timor-Leste’s shortcomings, the media is overlooking the progress that is being made in the country. In order to avoid this oversight, poverty reduction supporters need to be aware of how the media misrepresents Timor-Leste. This misrepresentation detracts from the discussion on how current development endeavors could be made more effective. It fails to reveal an avenue in which external organizations can provide support for these development agendas. Worst of all, it demoralizes those working hardest to make improvements. Timor-Leste is still maturing; the focus should be on fostering this growth.

– Joanna Dooley
Photo: Flickr