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Despite ongoing violence: A new way of learning greets many young Timorese students in a valiant back-to-school campaign

Escola Chinesa – Bairro Grilos, Dili, Timor-Leste
© UNICEF/ETMR/See
Children receive UNICEF backpacks during the back-to-school campaign in Timor-Leste

In the Bidau Massau area of Dili, violent feuding between two communities led to the partial damage of Primary School No. 2 and the destruction of its teachers’ lodging. The volatile tensions threatened the school’s ability to join the UNICEF-supported back-to-school campaign that began in September in Timor-Leste.

The problem, explained Pedrus de Lima, the principal, is that the two village chiefs are fighting, as well as the parents from both communities. “We can’t approach the leaders and parents to ensure that the children can come to school safely.” 

The children, however, were determined. While some 200 students have yet to appear in class, most of the student body and teachers have dared the insecurity of their streets for the security that learning brings to their lives.

It is a show of will power by most of the targeted 200,000 students and 5,000 teachers throughout the small country who have braved the scattered violence to heed the call of the two-month campaign, which also heralded in a new curriculum along with the new school year.

“We know about the back-to-school campaign from the TV news, but our main concern is still about security. I now accompany my children to school and make sure that the teachers also come to school before leaving them,” said Chrisna Gomes, a parent of three children.

At the beginning of the campaign, UNICEF Senior Programme Assistant Jorge Mouzinho travelled to the western districts, where many children fled to with their families in May and June, leaving school behind. "When I spoke to the district officials and school directors, they said the campaign was a good opportunity for them to speak directly to children, young people, parents, teachers and the community about the importance of schooling," he said, adding that it also helped to promote gender equality. 

To encourage communities to help protect children and ensure their safety in going to school, Education Minister Rosaria Corte-Real made “walkabouts” to vulnerable schools to assess the real situation. She spoke to parents and community leaders to encourage them to send their children back to school and to work together to find ways to address school security.

“Peace starts in our homes and communities and we need peace to ensure that children can get their education,” Corte-Real told them.

In addition, television talk shows and newspaper stories highlighted the campaign and the importance of education, which helped impress on the communities the campaign’s objectives and visibility.

The initial bloodshed, which sparked a humanitarian crisis leading to the displacement of up to 15 per cent of the population, brought education to a standstill for an estimated 30,000 primary school children in the capital. The crisis also affected learning for tens of thousands of others in classes throughout the country. At least 20 schools were damaged in the violence and refurbishment of facilities is still ongoing.

The resumption of formal education is a pivotal step in the process of restoring a sense of normality for young students, whose lives have been deeply affected by Timor-Leste’s recent round of political and social upheaval.

Escola Chinesa – Bairro Grilos, Dili, Timor-Leste
© UNICEF/ETMR/See
To launch the new curriculum, a cultural group demonstrates an active learning activity

Working closely with the Ministry of Education on the campaign, UNICEF support also has included delivering by land and sea teaching materials and 300,000 school bags filled with notebooks and writing pens for students and teachers in all districts.

The campaign involves more than 100 schools in Dili, some of which had been closed since the civil unrest engulfed the capital in late May. Unfortunately, several schools have yet to overcome the terrorizing ordeal. A UNICEF survey in September of 25 primary schools in Dili found that four were closed and another four were facing high levels of tension and insecurity. In the Bebonuc neighbourhood, for instance, violent gang clashes and house burnings prompted the principals to keep their schools closed rather than put the children at risk.

“One child not in school for fear of his or her own security is one child too many,” said Shui Meng Ng, UNICEF representative in Timor-Leste.

Even before the emergency, Timor-Leste faced tremendous challenges in education. One child in three does not enrol in primary school and literacy rates are low compared with other countries in the region. 

For the past three years, UNICEF, the Government and local educators, with financial support from the Swedish International Development Agency, have been concentrating on building a ‘learning-friendly’ environment, which had started to show real gains before the political crisis that erupted in May. 

The new curriculum was introduced in 2005 for Year 1 students and to Year 2 students during the recent back-to-school campaign. The Government and UNICEF are considering speeding up the curriculum introduction to the rest of the grades over the next two years.

The curriculum was uniquely developed using the newly independent country’s historical and cultural context while taking into consideration contemporary best practices for teaching. Traditional songs, dances and crafts are woven into class activities, and storybooks include local folk tales. It uses the two national languages Tetum and Portuguese and includes health and hygiene as cross-cutting subjects. There is active participation of children in the lessons through discussion, group activities, experiments, interactions with the environment and the community and it focuses on individual child-centre learning rather than on the completion of textbook chapters.

 

 
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