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Timor-Leste sets sights on the future

May 23, 2012

The streets of Dili are filled with more cars than ever. The capital of tiny Timor-Leste, Southeast Asia’s newest and poorest nation, has never been so bustling.

But beneath the surface and away from Dili’s newfound traffic jams, there’s a nation still recovering from a 24-year occupation by Indonesia that culminated in 1999 with the destruction of most of the country’s infrastructure as the Timorese voted resoundingly in favor of independence from Indonesia.

Two-and-a-half years of United Nations (UN) administration later and Timor-Leste was formally declared independent on May 20, 2002. Since then, it’s been a rocky road to recovery and development has had its twists and turns, with internal strife leading to violence along the way.

But today, as the people of Timor-Leste look back on what 10 years of independence has brought them, the country is experiencing its longest period of peace and there is a renewed sense of optimism in the air.

For a country with a history of electoral violence, 2012 is a big year for Timor-Leste. Two rounds of peaceful presidential elections were held in March and April, with guerrilla resistance hero and former head of the armed forces Taur Matan Ruak winning the top prize. Parliamentary elections will take place in July.

Now, as the substantial UN mission in Timor-Leste prepares to withdraw by the end of the year, passing responsibility for security to the hands of the country’s police and army, what’s needed now are long-term solutions.

Plan International runs projects in two districts, Aileu and Lautem, covering education, health, youth empowerment, water and sanitation, early childhood care and development, and child protection.

While the hustle and bustle of economic activity continues to ramp up in Dili, out in the districts subsistence farming is still the main means by which people feed and care for their families. Isolated by poor road infrastructure and mountainous geography, families in remote villages have limited access to vital services, markets or employment.

In Soikili village, up in the hills of Lautem, Timor-Leste’s easternmost district, Plan supports a community preschool and has helped mother set up a sewing group so that they can earn an income while their children get an education.

The six young women in the group have been trained and given pedal-powered sewing machines to use because they don’t have a constant electricity supply yet. The women have set up a small business in the village patching up and repairing clothes for their neighbors, taking on about 40 jobs a month. The extra income is a big help. Some of it is used for maintaining the equipment and buying new materials, while what's left over goes towards everyday household items like soap, vegetables, rice and cooking oil.

Amelia, one of the women, says that being in the group brings other benefits, too. “Now we don't just stay in the kitchen, cooking and looking after the children.”

Being able to earn an income boosts the confidence of women like Amelia so they have more of a voice in their homes and communities.

Amelia has a daughter in the Plan-supported community preschool, where she is being taught basic math and reading skills through songs, games and dance. This will make it easier for her to enter primary school, says Amelia, who dropped out of school because she was raised to speak one of Timor-Leste’s 20 or so mother tongue languages and couldn’t follow what was said in class.

Plan supports community preschools in 32 communities across the country and there are also 40 youth groups, but with 1.2 million people here - most of them poor, many of them traumatized by the past – there’s still a lot of work to do.

Learn more about Plan's work in Timor-Leste.