Paulina Quintao – Private secondary schools are refusing to accept young mothers wanting to continue their studies after giving birth as there is still no legal basis.
The Director of Rede Feto, Dinorah Granadeiro, said unofficially the Ministry of Education had already instructed public schools to accept those students wanting to continue their studies, but private schools did not recognize informal directives.
She described the government's decision not to introduce proper regulations requiring private schools to also accept drop-out students as discriminatory.
"When we receive complaints from girls who study in private schools, we meet with the school directors, but they say that there is no law yet that requires them to implement it," she said. "They cannot accept (the students) because internal regulations do not permit it."
However, she said women's organizations continued to advocate at the highest level, adding that the constitution guaranteed everyone's right to access education.
In 2009, the Committee for the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) recommended that Timor-Leste implement a formal policy making it mandatory for all public and private schools to accept female students wanting to re-enrol after giving birth, but the government has still not done so.
In 2015, Timor-Leste delivered its second periodic report to the CEDAW committee in Geneva, with the committee again recommending the government fast-track the policy in order to ensure the rights of women in accessing education.
The CEDAW committee also called on Timor-Leste to strengthen the health assistance provided to women and children, as well as improve access to justice for the victims of gender-based violence and increase the number of women in school and their participation across all sectors.
"We have the law, but often the cases are pending and the penalty provided to domestic violence perpetrators is light, therefore the committee thinks that this gives space for perpetrators to commit these crime because the process is delayed and there are no immediate sanctions imposed on them," said Granadeiro.
Eighteen-year-old student Noy (not her real name) from Covalima municipality said she did return to school until after she gave birth.
After her family approached the school director, she said she was allowed to make up assessments that she missed while pregnant and sit the national exam.
As she was unable to attend school during her pregnancy, Noy said she copied school work from friends and studied at home in order to keep up. "I have good luck, but others do not, because I have the full support of my family and my husband," she said.
When her family and in-laws became aware of her pregnancy, they were concerned for the future of her and her husband, also then aged 18, and so agreed that they should both continue their studies.
When she returned to school to sit her exams, Noy said some friends made insulting comments towards her, but instead of being deterred she used this as motivation to continue her studies.
After this experience, she established a small advocacy group to encourage teachers and families to support young women to continue their schooling.
"I have a friend studying at a private school who fell pregnant and when she returned to school the school director did not permit her to attend the exam, so we met with the public school director to allow the student to sit the national exam," she said.
Noy went on to finish her secondary schooling in 2015 and has since left her child in the care of family in her village so that she can continue her studies at university in Dili.
Meanwhile, the General Director for the Secretariat of State for the Socio-Economic Support of Women (SEM), Armando da Costa, acknowledged that although the government had not yet established a formal policy, it had been implemented in practice.
"The Ministry of Education continues to discuss the policy, but I think in practice it has already been implemented in public schools," he said.
He said SEM would continue to work with the Ministry of Education to find a good solution to the issue and that the government was committed to applying CEDAWS' recommendations by promoting women's participation in the national development process.