As Timor-Leste turns sixteen, pre-schools are vital
OPINION: Timor-Leste is a new country, the third youngest in the world after South Sudan. It's also a very small country, similar in size to Auckland with a population of roughly 1.2 million.
Every country's future is in the hands of its children. In the case of Timor-Leste - a young nation stepping out from under the dark shadow of conflict - this statement is true indeed.
The people are young. Half the population is under eighteen and one third of their people are aged under eight.
East Timor is an island, one covered in mountains, and this means the challenges to accessing education are as much geographical as anything else. The population is dispersed widely and roading infrastructure is fragile.
* Cafe owner imports coffee beans directly from Timor-Leste
* Jano Bere Buti relives the horror that war brought to his family in East Timor
* Zulmira Pinto discusses growing up in a war-torn country
* East Timor president blends in well
* East Timor police look to NZ values
We are very fortunate in New Zealand, where 95 per cent of our pre-schoolers have pre-schools they can attend close by. The numbers in Timor-Leste couldn't be more different. Only 17 per cent of children attend a public pre-school.
How come attendance is so low?
The government simply can't afford to build a pre-school in every community.
Many children face walking 2-5 kilometres to reach the nearest school. One example is in the coffee-growing region of Leubasa/Leimea Leten, where UNICEF supports a pre-school. The only route to school takes young children beneath plantations, submerging them in darkness, which is a scary walk when you are little.
You begin to understand why parents would choose to keep kids at home until they are older, rather than have them face such a dangerous journey.
Imagine not having any formal education until you were seven or eight. Children come to school and aren't at all prepared, usually it's the first time they have seen a book or even held a pencil. Children quickly fall behind and end up repeating a year.
These children are then more likely to stay at home and skip school, especially when it rains and they are faced with a walk that is not only long but also slippery and muddy. The dropout rate is high.
Malnutrition and stunted growth are big problems in Timor-Leste, about 50 per cent of children under age five are stunted due to poor nutrition or hygiene. The impact on brain development is significant. The children become susceptible to disease.
An important part of pre-school education in Timor-Leste is to explore with parents what raising children in a positive and nurturing environment looks like for them. The importance of healthy diets and positive discipline, bonding through singing and talking to your baby, are all vital to healthy growth.
For many people, the trauma of past conflicts still exist, especially for the generation of parents who experienced the occupation, so learning new ways, and rediscovering traditional ways is part of creating a new society.
Now in this post-conflict era, a new generation of people in Timor-Leste have a chance to create a new country, a country without violence and where children can flourish.
The very young kids represent the first hope in a long time of childhood unmarked by conflict.
Now is the time to support this latest, newest, country of South East Asia to build their new place, to support their dream of children educated to take their place in the world, and to support them to grab hold of the vision they have for Timor-Leste.
Vivien Maidaborn, UNICEF New Zealand Executive Director
This article was supplied as part of Stuff's partnership with Unicef NZ.
You can help children in Timor-Leste go to pre-school. For every dollar you give, UNICEF NZ Ambassadors Jo and Gareth Morgan will match.