Reviving the hopes and dreams of vulnerable girls in Timor-Leste
The Girls Empowerment programme provides therapeutic care for adolescent girl survivors of violence and those at heightened risk of Gender Based Violence
Ermera, 11th August 2023 - Taraço Suco (village), Railaco Administrative Post, in Ermera Municipality is situated on the peak of a mountain range. From where their house is located, Eufrazia Carvalho Soares gets a daily panoramic view of Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste. It is this picturesque view which has motivated Eufrazia to dream of exploring what opportunities lie beyond the majestic mountains surrounding Taraço.
“There is really nothing much for young people to do here and I think there are better opportunities for me in Dili. All the young people here dream of leaving and going to Dili to find a good job – I have always wanted to go there to become teacher,” says Eufrazia, who unfortunately had to delay in pursing this dream as her life story took an unexpected twist four years ago.
At 18 years, young, impressionable, and vulnerable to the preying ways of her boyfriend, Eufrazia became pregnant and was abandoned by the boyfriend, who was five years her senior. Alone, confused and hurt by her boyfriend’s betrayal, Eufrazia now had to leave school, face the stern moral judgement of her neighbours, and live with the wrath of her parents. This all made her lose her self-esteem and her zeal for life.
“My parents were ashamed of me, they did not want me to return to school and thought I would get pregnant again if ever I left the house,” says Eufrazia, whose eyes become unavoidably teary when she recalls this sad episode of her life. “At that point, I was okay staying indoors alone with my baby, because I was embarrassed, terrified to face my old friends and feared that my life would never recover from this situation.”
Like Eufrazia, the dreams and aspirations of many adolescent girls in Timor-Leste, especially those from poor and marginalised communities, are often thrown into disarray by early marriages, teenage pregnancies, and partner violence. More than 24 per cent of young women already have a child by the time they turn 20 years and based on a World Vision program evaluation on GBV in 2018, women and girls in Timor-Leste are exposed to high rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) and family violence.
Systems to prevent and respond to these situations, are still very limited, comprehensive data on prevalence of teenage pregnancies is sparse, while access to survivor-centred health, social, and justice services is difficult for many young girls and women. In Taraço for example, the nearest police station and health facility are located more than five kilometres from the village, a distance which requires meandering through the long rough and dusty paths on foot.
It is these startling statistics and these unfortunate circumstances, which the Girls Empowerment programme is trying to address through a program to provide therapeutic care for adolescent girl survivors of violence and those at heightened risk of Gender Based Violence.
Established under the Spotlight Initiative in 2020 and implemented by UNICEF in partnership with World Vision and PRADET, the Girls Empowerment programme has identified facilitators who are stepping up to help girls like Eufrazia to regain their confidence, overcome stress and to help them discover essential life skills to improve their lives. This work on girls empowerment is contributing to the overall child protection work of the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion.
As a member of the Girls Empowerment group since 2022, Eufrazia is now one of 29 girls in Taraço, who meet on a regular basis to exchange information and knowledge on how to prepare for their future. Under the guardianship of Esperança Carvalho, who has been trained to provide emotional and psychosocial to girls in Taraço, the Girls Empowerment Group also collectively explores money making initiatives which help the girls to be self-sustaining.
Esperança is also the conduit for correct information about girls’ reproductive health and give the girls referrals of where to seek professional medical, psychosocial, or legal support when needed.
“Our training as facilitators has helped us to be empathetic with the adolescents and young people in the group and support them with information and skills to manage the stressful events in their lives and to prepare better for their future,” says Esperanca, who is selfless in her support to her younger peers.
In Ermera, more than 80 girls have benefitted from the girls empower programme and are today looking beyond the bitter periods of their lives, making new friends, and following up on their life dreams.
“Esperanca was the first person I opened to about my disappointments, my fears, and the uncertainties I had about life after falling pregnant and dropping out of school. She has made me realize that everyone has a problem, and it is important for us to talk, share our problems and find solutions to move on,” says Eufrazia, who today has managed to step out of the trap of self-guilt and is beginning to have a better outlook of herself and her situation.
As her confidence is gradually being revived, Eufrazia is also rekindling her dreams of becoming a teacher.
As she patiently explores ways to follow her desired path in life, she has found an opportunity to support children from her community with remedial lessons and regularly gives motivational talks to girls at nearby schools. She knows that there are still many girls in Taraço, whose life chances can be disrupted if proper information and support is not given to them, and she is happy to guide them to make positive life choices.