In Timor-Leste, UNICEF joins government child-friendly efforts to rebuild education

By Steve Nettleton

LACLUBAR, Timor-Leste, 13 May 2011 – High along the mountainous spine of Timor-Leste, one of Asia’s poorest countries, children in the remote town of Laclubar head for class. Yet the tranquil setting of this quiet place, nestled under the canopy of tall trees, masks a darker history that is only now beginning to fade.

The fact that Madalena Soares, 13, can come to class at all represents a success story of local and international cooperation. She is not only a student, but a leader, serving as president of her school’s student council. Her classroom is not ideal – a floor of earth and walls of stitched bamboo. But most other rooms here are in better condition.

Madalena’s school and community in Batara in Laclubar suffered heavily following Timor-Leste’s referendum to become independent from Indonesia in 1999. Then, pro-Indonesian militias retaliated with a wave of torching and killing, forcing hundreds of thousands of Timorese to flee their homes.

Rebuilding from scratch

“In 1999, all the people, including children, were scattered,” explained Fernanda de Almeida, former Principal of Batara Public Primary School. “We were in the mountains – students, parents. When we came back, many students did not go back to school.” The school buildings in Laclubar were left in ruins, with no roof, desks or chairs.

A group of local school leaders took matters into their own hands, launching an effort to restore the school. They sought out other former teachers to return to class, and mobilized the community to pitch in however they could.

“The parents also contributed by supplying chairs, tables and other small things that are needed for the school to function,” recalled Raimundo Soares, former Parent Teacher Association President at Batara Public Primary School. “The community showed their greatest interest and willingness to re-establish the schools because they wanted something good for their children.”

Across the new nation, the education situation was dire. In the capital, Dili, much of the population had fled, and many school buildings had been set alight.

João Câncio Freitas, Timor-Leste’s Minister of Education said 80 per cent of infrastructure was burned or destroyed as a result of the referendum. “In terms of teachers, 80 per cent of the teachers at that time were Indonesian or Timorese who decided to join Indonesia. The students left abruptly. So we had to start from scratch,” he said.

Teaching tolerance

Faced with this enormous challenge, the Government of Timor-Leste teamed up with UNICEF to rebuild its entire education system from the ground up. In collaboration with UNICEF and partners, it has developed a new curriculum, continues to rehabilitate schools and trains thousands of teachers.

Part of its strategy in Timor-Leste involves making schools a place that teach not only basic knowledge, but skills such as tolerance, mutual respect and the ability to live peacefully with others.

“One element of the curriculum includes peace education, civic education and human rights, so the next generation will have the basic principles of human rights, and how to work together and provide support to each other,” said UNICEF Education Specialist Annette Nyquist.

This umbrella approach to delivering high-quality education follows UNICEF’s child-friendly schooling model. Among other aspects, it encourages both children and the community to become more involved in the education process.

Batara Public Primary School is one of nearly 40 schools across Timor-Leste implementing the child-friendly school programme. The teachers here are taught to create a more inclusive learning environment, where students feel freer to participate in their lessons.

‘Education a must’

For children, parents and community leaders, efforts to rebuild Timor-Leste’s education system provide an opportunity to reach more marginalized communities, such as Laclubar.

“Education is not only for educating people but also to provide skills for them to… prepare themselves to be part of the development process,” said Mr. Freitas. “Education is a must for a country like us.”

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