Timor-Leste’s Teen Mothers Desperate to Return to School
“When my family found out that I was pregnant, my uncle, a teacher at my school, asked my parents to take me out of school. If I continued my studies then I would have embarrassed my school,” says 18-year-old Juliana, who became pregnant at the age of 15.
Unmarried, Juliana lives with her parents in a remote part of Aileu district, just south of Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. Her daugher is now 2 years old, and Juliana is expecting a second child. Her biggest regret? Not finishing school.
“I don’t have the opportunity anymore to develop myself like other young people. I just stay at home and give my time to my children," she says.
Girls who live in rural areas of Timor-Leste have fewer opportunities to attend school than their urban peers. By Grade 10, only 16 percent of children who originally entered school at Grade 1 are still in class.
Juliana had overcome signficant barriers to make it to junior high school. It takes an average of about 11 years for children to complete primary school in Timor-Leste, with high rates of repetition and low quality of learning. More than 30 percent of children in Timor-Leste never enroll in school at all and, when a girl becomes pregnant, she is almost always forced to drop out because it’s a violation of Timorese school rules.
Barriers to Obtaining an Education
“For me, education is just for people who live in the city and have parents. People like me don’t have this opportunity,” says 22-year-old Ermelinda, whose parents passed away many years ago.
Ermelinda, who’s never been to school, became pregnant when she was 16. Today, she lives with her 5-year-old son in her older sister’s home in rural Lautem at the very edge of eastern Timor-Leste. Like Juliana, Ermelinda is unmarried.
“It’s hard to be a mother. I don’t have anything to feed my baby and I still depend on my older sister and her husband,” says Ermelinda. “I am glad that my older sister and her husband are kind and that they want to help look after my boy and me.”
For both Juliana and Ermelinda, hope lies in the future and the education of their own children. “It’s ok that I am unsuccessful,” says Juliana, “but I dream that my children will have a better future.”
Getting Married to Protect the Family Image
When a teenage girl becomes pregnant in predominantly Catholic Timor-Leste, she will usually be expected to marry to avoid shaming her family.
It’s not uncommon for girls under the age of 18 to be married in Timor-Leste. Girls here can legally be married when they’re 15, boys at 18. Almost 19 percent of girls in Timor-Leste are married by the time they are 19, while the the fertility rate is one of the highest in the region with women having, on average, six children. The combination of pregnancy and marriage is usually enough to keep girls out of school for good.
Teenage pregnancy is so widespread in Timor-Leste partly because girls and boys have limited access to family planning services, which are only available to married couples, and little knowledge of sexual education.
“It’s a vicious cycle that denies girls an education and keeps them in poverty,” says Etho Mota, Plan’s Youth Program Manager in Timor-Leste. “Girls and boys often have no idea how to avoid early pregnancy – and they don’t find out until it’s too late, by which time the girl will often have dropped out of school, got married, and abandoned all hope of achieving her dreams.”
“Just one extra year of secondary school is enough to increase a girl’s income by up to 25 percent,” adds Mota.
Without the right knowledge and skills, newly married couples like Isabel and Joao face uncertain futures, living in cramped conditions together with their baby daughter and 10 other family members.
“I still want to enjoy my life and study like my other friends, but I can’t because I am a mother and have to stay at home to look after my baby,” Isabel says.