Learning takes centre stage for displaced adults and adolescents in Timor-Leste

By Bridgette See

METINARO, Timor-Leste, 8 May 2007 - The Metinaro camp for displaced persons is 30 km east of Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. When widespread violence broke out in Dili in 2006, Metinaro was lined with tents sheltering thousands who had lost their homes or were afraid to return.

A year later, almost 1,440 families remain. Their homes now have thatched roofs and some have zinc plates as walls, affording more shelter and privacy.

Life is tough here, but 75 women and adolescents are finding relief from their daily routine. Three times a week, they attend literacy classes supported by UNICEF.

Classes require concentration

Today, a class is learning to spell the words for different parts of the face: mouth, nose, ears and eyes. A teacher writes the words on the whiteboard and then gets students to come forward and practice spelling.

"[The class] is difficult initially, but I think after a year, we should be OK. I know the letters in the alphabet but it's difficult to put them together to form words," says Mafalda, a 30-year-old student.

Most of the women have never been to school, so even writing in capital and small letters requires plenty of concentration.

"We've learnt the ABCs and learnt to count, and also to write our names," says a student named Amelia, 25. This is her first time in school, but she is confident as she takes a pen to slowly print her name in capital letters.

"They were all so happy when they could sign their names on the voter-registration cards," recalls teacher Ligia Pinheiro, referring to registration for the presidential election held here in April - the country's first election since independence in 2002. (The presidential runoff vote is to be held tomorrow.)

Demand for education

Ms. Pinheiro and two other women living at the camp run the literacy classes. They use a new basic literacy manual, 'Hakat Ba Oin' (Step Forward), which was jointly developed by UNICEF, the UN Development Programme, the Brazilian Mission and the government's Non-Formal Education Division. The manual is currently being tested in five districts with 700 students and will be officially introduced countrywide in September.

Literacy classes were started in three major camps late last year in response to an overwhelming demand from the displaced population. UNICEF funds the classes and supplies materials such as literacy manuals and tents for the adolescent and adult learners.

The students' families seem supportive of the classes as well.

"Even when I am not feeling well, my husband reminds me that there is a class and that I shouldn't miss the class," notes Mafalda. "He says that I have to attend regularly in order to learn."

Literacy builds self-confidence

UNICEF is playing a key role in raising literacy rates in Timor-Leste, especially among adolescents who missed out on the opportunity to complete their basic education. The country's 2004 census revealed that only 32 per cent of people over 15 years of age were able to speak, read and write the official language, Tetum. More than 40,000 young people are estimated to be out of school or illiterate.

UNICEF Project Officer for Adolescents and HIV/AIDS Bridget Job-Johnson is optimistic that the literacy programme will make a difference, as it addresses one of the major issues affecting youth in Timor-Leste.

"The feedback from evaluation of the pilot test has been that within three months, many who were illiterate before were able to read and write," she reports. "We have trained the tutors to allow the learners to learn at their own pace, because some may already have some level of literacy, while others don't."

For the learners at Metinaro camp, the classes provides a space to gather and to grow in self-confidence. They have been teased by men and children for attending classes at their age, but they continue despite the taunts.

"I want to learn, not just for now but for the future," said Alda, another of the Metinaro students. "We're independent now so we have to learn. I will stop [learning] only when I die."