articles, opinions, and research about teaching and learning

Teachers Forum
November, 2002

Supporting Girl Students
in East Timor
An interview with
Filomena Capeda

Farol Primary School, Dili

Filomena Capeda


East Timor was the first country to become independent in the twenty first century, after 450 years of Portuguese rule and 24 years under Indonesian administration (1975 — 1999). After the vast majority of East Timorese voted for independence in a referendum in August 1999, pro-Indonesian militia caused enormous destruction in the country. They burned down about 95% of the schools.

‘Voice of The Teachers,’ a book of interviews with teachers produced by UNICEF, documents some of the effects of the violence on schools, teachers and of course the children. Teachers like Carlotta da Costa Amaral reported on their experiences in 1999 and how they have rebuilt their lives and schools. Carlotta explains, "There were only classes during the first three weeks of August ’99 so that people could prepare for the ballot on the August 30th. On September 4th the announcement of the result came, and all of the teachers and their families ran to the mountains nearby Ainaro." Carlotta stayed there hiding from the militia for one and half months.

The interview below, with East Timorese headteacher Filomena Cepeda, reminds us of those days in 1999, but also explains how teachers can support girls to find their role in the new country.

This interview was originally taped in Tetum and transcribed into English.

Question: How did schools start after the emergency in 1999?

Answer: Everything was destroyed, schools were burned, all the furniture, but we supported each other. We asked children to come to school rather than just hanging around. We talked with the parents who lived near the school. We knew we had to start the school, even though we had nothing. We started with language teaching and we even tried to give some teacher training. We did not get any salary. Some parents helped us and we tried to start other schools until the transitional authority could start. We asked for support from the priest and the church. We also received support from CNRT and UNICEF.

Q: Coming to the present, what difficulties are girls now facing at school?

A: Sometimes girls get shy when they have to mix with the boys in group work in school. The boys dominate. The teacher has to explain to the girls and boys so that the girls become more confident and feel free; so that they can develop their abilities and choose what is better for them.

Some sports are usually only done by boys, for example, soccer. Girls would like to play, but if they do, they may be ridiculed and be called a ‘tomboy’. Girls and boys have the same rights but in our traditional culture men do certain jobs and women do others. If parents are not educated, they will think that a girl’s place is in the kitchen. Yet girls have the right to continue their studies and have the right to do what boys are doing. Teachers have to explain this to children because their parents may have limited experience. If girls make caretas (toy cars made from recycled materials) they will be called names and if boys want to cook they would be called a sissy. Actually some girls feel they cannot make caretas because they are appropriate for the boys only.

Related Links on UNICEF

Through the Eyes of the Children
Art and journals from children in East Timor

Involving families in learning
When we involve families in learning, we enhance the potential for learning in our classrooms, and we create support for our teaching in many ways.

Gender and learning
When it comes to school and learning, the attitudes and actions of teachers and families can exert great influence. And these influences have clear ramifications for the cognitive development of girls and boys.

Moving forward with Co-operative Learning
Putting co-operative learning into practice requires patience, and attention to interactions in your classroom. This section offers a few key points to look for as you are observing children learning and playing.

What I Want to do When I Grow Up
Prompting students to create interest in possible jobs through visuals, story writing and play acting. From the Children's Wishbook.

The Girl Child
Discussion and resources from Voices of Youth

Q: What advice can you give teachers to help improve girls’ achievement?

A: First try to encourage girls. Give them opportunity to try and see by themselves.

The teacher has to create opportunities for children. Girls should be able to do experiments in school. They need to know that they can be engineers or scientists, if they want to. In maths teachers should be more creative. Girls should have more practical experience in maths otherwise they will only choose social subjects later. They won’t even have a choice.

As teachers we need to make better links between home and school. Children may make things at home and where it is relevant, we need to tell them how important these activities are to their learning and to make the connection with their school work. When we do experiments in school, like using caretas, we need to give the reason why things happen, like estimating speed and measuring distance so that they can try experiments again at home and link it with their learning.

Things are changing in East Timor. Starting from now we have to explain to the children what is happening in the world, that all children can take part equally.

We have watched on TV and seen here in the UN, examples of women driving trucks, in the police and serving in the military. Teachers need to explain that girls can be engineers. We have to encourage children to be what they want to be. Teachers have to provide information and it is up to the children to decide what they like. It is not for teachers to discriminate.

We need to prepare the children for a new future, like the oil industry. This is our only resource.

Parents have limited time, they do not have enough opportunity to even talk with their children, but children meet teachers at school every day. Teachers can give attention to them. We have to use the time to give explanations, encourage and motivate them to succeed. Teachers need to make good relationships with parents, so that parents know that their girls have ability. Some parents may say certain jobs are not right for the girls. Girls can even be president for example. Look at the president of Indonesia! The important thing is that they have the opportunity to learn more.

girls working

Q: What advice can you give parents to try to encourage girls to achieve at school?

A: East Timorese traditional beliefs influence girls not to try in school.

It's important for teachers to form good relationships with girls' parents so they can explain girls' abilities to their parents. Teachers can remind parents to give girls opportunities so that they can achieve their potential. Unfortunately there are the problems of dowry and parents do not have enough money as many parents live in poverty. We need to explain to them that their daughters can bring money in from professional work rather than just waiting for the dowry. We should try to say that some girls can get a profession of their choice, they do not have to be just a housewife or mother.

Q: The future of East Timor —can you feel hopeful that the girls in your school will be able to reach their potential?

A: Yes I feel confident, because of the opportunities we are giving to the girls, now.

They already show they are interested, particularly in science. Of course, it depends on their teachers. If they show willingness to provide good motivation and can recognise ability, then they can help girls to fulfill their potential. With a new country, but poor economy, we have to make the best of our human resources.

Another book, produced by UNICEF, East Timor, documents children’s accounts of the emergency and of their hopes for the future. A sample of "Through the Eyes of the Children" is available online. To acquire the book itself, contact Yoshiteru Uramoto, Special Representative - UNICEF East Timor

Would you like to read other interviews with practising teachers?

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Last revised November 1, 2002
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