Subject: UCAN: East Timor: Concerns mark children's day

June 13,2007

East Timor: Concerns mark children's day

DILI (UCAN): Lack of educational opportunities, prevalence of child labor and other concerns sidelined celebration at an International Children's Day observance in Timor Leste (East Timor).

The symposium held on May 31 in Comoro, Dili, drew about 500 representatives of schools throughout the country. Many countries designate June 1 as Children's Day.

Local and international NGOs organized the symposium, titled "Protecting the children is a step to guarantee the future of the nation." It dealt with human rights, education and the law in relation to young people.

Speaking at the event, Pascoela Marciana da Silva, a representative of St. Joseph High School in Dili, noted the government has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the 18-year-old student said, today many East Timorese children are abused, often having to struggle to earn a living on the streets by selling CDs and newspapers, washing cars or begging.

According to the labor ministry, 45 percent of East Timorese under 18 have to find jobs to help their families economically.

In school, da Silva continued, children still face corporal punishment.

Responding to da Silva, Joaquim Fonseca, human rights adviser for the prime minister's office, said the government is designing a human rights law to protect children. He agreed they must have the opportunity to go to school and gain a proper education rather than bear the responsibilities of adults.

Fonseca, 36, had said in opening remarks that the family is children's first source of education. For children to grow and develop well, their parents must guide and educate them, he maintained. But he added that human rights violations occur today because families, communities and national leaders talk about human rights without knowing their real meaning.

At the symposium Florindo Cardoso Gomes, 18, another St. Joseph student, highlighted the big responsibility the state has toward each child, given that children are the future of the country.

Michaela Carol, 17, of Santa Magdalena, a Catholic school, asserted that every child needs a good education to be useful to their family, nation and Church.

Father Guilermino da Silva, director of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School in Becora, Dili, sees the country's unstable economic and political situation as a main factor in its failure to fully implement the international convention on children's rights. Children are leaving school to work due to economic necessity, the 36-year-old diocesan priest told UCA News after the symposium.

Sister Luisa Bano said the seminar made people more aware of children's rights. The 35-year-old nun cited lack of educational opportunities as the most serious problem faced by children in the country. She too blamed this on the economic and political situation.

Lack of attention to educating parents about children's rights is another major reason why children are neglected or forced to work, according to Joana Vila Nova Simoes, 31. The child protection training officer of Care International told UCA News that in general, rural parents think it is their children's duty to work for them.

Mary Ann Maglipon, a UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) representative to Timor Leste, told UCA News she hoped the day's activities would "remind all people that what is most important today is children, and that we have to respect and treat them well."

The education ministry counts 60 percent of Timor Leste's 1 million people as illiterate. Many schools that existed in 1999, the year local people voted for independence from Indonesia in a referendum the United Nations conducted, were damaged in violence that followed the referendum. Materials to rebuild the schools and teachers to staff them are lacking.

Meanwhile, more and more children are born. United Nations Population Fund data from 1999 to 2004 shows the average lifetime fertility rate in Timor Leste is 6.95 children per woman, one of the highest in the world.

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