When Graziela Sarmento was 16, she got pregnant, dropped out of school, left her parents behind in the countryside and went to live with her aunt and uncle in Dili, East Timor’s capital.
Three years later her life revolves around Bruno, her son, with her dreams of an education dashed and hopes for a decent job almost nil.
Sarmento’s story typifies the growing problem of teen pregnancy in East Timor, a conservative Catholic country that is struggling to cope with one of the highest fertility rates in the world.
“When I knew I was pregnant, I dropped out of school. I was shy, I had to protect my dignity,” she said, adding that Bruno’s father, a former classmate, wanted nothing to do with the child.
“I wasn’t able to finish school. After the baby came, I had to stay at home with my son,” she said. “I regret it.”
Timorese women have an average of six or seven children each. A UN study last year found that among those aged 20 to 24 more than half had at least one child, and of those, 60 percent had their first child before they were 19.
The problem of teen mums is being exacerbated by the fact that the population of 1.1 million people is also very young, with about 60 percent under 24 years.
Some analysts say the average age of first pregnancy is likely to fall, citing studies that the level of sexual activity among young people is on the rise.
“For people in the rural areas, when they are 20 years old and we ask them how many children they have, they say they already have two or three,” said Veronica Correia, a maternal and child health expert from the Alola Foundation.
It’s common for teen mothers everywhere to drop out of school, but in East Timor they have almost no chance of resuming their education later, analysts say.
The cultural barriers to their return to school are so strong that many young East Timorese women believe they lose the right to an education once they give birth.
So the government has set up a new policy unit to focus on measures to bring young mothers back to the classroom.
“We’re going to establish a new unit that will take responsibility, particularly in terms of inclusion, and then after that we’ll start with designing the policy,” explained education ministry official Afonso Soares.
And with the help of the University of Minho in Portugal, the government is drafting a new junior high school curriculum that will include sex education for the first time.
But the challenges are huge. According to the World Bank, less than half of the children starting primary school in East Timor will reach grade six, and the adult literacy rate is only about 50 percent.
Ameerah Haq, East Timor’s new special representative of the UN secretary-general, called on the government to allocate a larger slice of the state budget to educating young women with children.
Citing UN research showing that children are more than twice as likely to die or be malnourished if born to mothers with no formal education, she said it was vital to “promote an educational setting that eliminates all barriers” for pregnant adolescents and young mothers.
It might be too late for Sarmento, who has lost hope she will ever finish school and doesn’t expect anything to change.
“I want the government to do this in the short term. I want them to prove it,” she said.