As Timor-Leste turns sixteen, pre-schools are vital stuff nation video

UNICEF NZ

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. Half the population are under eighteen and one third of them under eight.

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.

Children thank Unicef New Zealand for the support of their alternative early childhood education centre in Darabay ...
Antti Helin

Children thank Unicef New Zealand for the support of their alternative early childhood education centre in Darabay village in Timor-Leste.

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.

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Nevia Magno, 4 years. As with most of the kids in her pre-school, Nevia's way to school is very short, just about two ...
Antti Helin

Nevia Magno, 4 years. As with most of the kids in her pre-school, Nevia's way to school is very short, just about two minutes. She needs to just balance on stones through a muddy pigpen, walk through a neighbour's house and voila, she's at the school. Short distance to the alternative pre-school has made it easy for families to send their kids to the school even when they are busy on the fields.

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.

To get to school Nevia Magno (right), 4, walks through the house of her friend Febiana Canizio, 4. Here they walk the ...
Antti Helin

To get to school Nevia Magno (right), 4, walks through the house of her friend Febiana Canizio, 4. Here they walk the rest of the way to the school together. Both have chosen their most beautiful dresses for the class.

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.

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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.

Febiana Canizio's, 4, grandfather Manuel Rosari says the family put Febiana to the early childhood education centre just ...
Antti Helin

Febiana Canizio's, 4, grandfather Manuel Rosari says the family put Febiana to the early childhood education centre just because it was there, next to their house. I told her she can go to the school since it's very close. Why not? We didn't have any expectations about the school, but now we are very happy. Since she started the school she has started to sing at home, and she has learned alphabets, counting, and can do drawings.

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.

Anizio's younger brother Dionizio Amaral, 3 years, is a cheerful little fellow who likes to climb palm trees. Unlike ...
Antti Helin

Anizio's younger brother Dionizio Amaral, 3 years, is a cheerful little fellow who likes to climb palm trees. Unlike most of the other children he claims he is not that keen to attend the pre-school. Maybe climbing trees is just much more fun!

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.

Brizita Xavier Trindade, 3 years. Brizita's and Otto's mother Esperanza Alves Xavier likes to read to her children. She ...
Antti Helin

Brizita Xavier Trindade, 3 years. Brizita's and Otto's mother Esperanza Alves Xavier likes to read to her children. She works as a voluntary teacher in the alternative pre-school. Even so, the family has only one book at home, which they keep reading over and over again. Most other families don't have any books or drawing materials at all.

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.

No time to walk. Anizio Amaral, 4, speeds ahead of his father on his way home for dinner. Next day is a brand new school day.
Antti Helin

No time to walk. Anizio Amaral, 4, speeds ahead of his father on his way home for dinner. Next day is a brand new school day.

UNICEF stands up for every child so they can have a childhood. Find out more at unicef.org.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.

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