Paulina Quintao – The Ministry of Education has still not created a policy to ensure school principals accept female drop-outs so that they can continue their studies after childbirth.
Deputy Minister of Education Dulce de Jesus Soares agreed there should be a policy in place, but said Timorese culture, which makes it difficult for women who have children early to continue their studies, was also something that needed to be looked at.
"It is true that we do not have a policy, it's not that we don't want, but and we need a lot of opinions from different people to find a solution," she said at a national conference on sexual and reproductive health rights in Delta Nova, Dili.
However, she said the ministry had developed equivalent education for basic school, an alternative to give girls who have dropped out due to pregnancy an opportunity to continue their studies.
Although Timor still does not have a formal policy, she said some schools do accept female drop-outs and last year some students were allowed to sit their national high school examination at the education offices in their municipalities
Health Ministry data showed that 99% of teenage girls who fell pregnant did not continue their studies because they were preoccupied with raising their children and other social problems.
To prevent early pregnancy, she said the ministry was working with other development partners to promote extracurricular activities in schools to encourage young women not to abandon their studies.
Director of the Alola Foundation Alzira Reis acknowledged that although some public schools accepted female drop-outs, she said it was usually not the school they previously attended and this was unfair.
She said parents sometimes encouraged their children to marry at a young age, but in cases of unplanned pregnancy families often feel ashamed and therefore don't encourage their children to continue their studies after childbirth.
"It is important to increase parents' understanding of the importance of education and the impact of early pregnancy on their children's future," she said.
She said civil society wanted a policy implemented as a legal basis to protect the rights of female drop-outs and ensure that both public and private school principals allowed them to return to their studies after childbirth.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Maria do Ceu Sarmento said the appropriate age for women to start a family was 20 and that teenage pregnancy posed a significant risk to the health of both mothers and their babies. "Women over the age of 20 are more physically and mentally mature," she said.
She explained that unplanned teenage pregnancy increased the risk of serious complications and also led to more deaths and poor child health because girls were financially unprepared for the responsibilities of starting a family.