Subject: East Timor's baby boom puts Asia's youngest country under strain

by Aubrey Belford

Wed Jun 11, 11:10 PM ET

TIBAR, East Timor (AFP) - East Timor, which gained formal independence in 2002 after a long history of occupation under Portugal and Indonesia, is Asia's youngest country in more ways than one.

Its birthrate of 7.7 children per woman is one of the highest in the world, the United Nations says. And for the people of such a poor country, where jobs are scarce, that is both a blessing and a curse.

According to Kirsty Gusmao, wife of the country's prime minister and head of the Alola Foundation advocacy group, East Timor's birthrate has shot up as the country rebuilds following the end in 1999 of Indonesia's bloody 24-year rule.

"You can say there is a bit of a baby boom happening, which is not uncommon in a post-conflict environment such as Timor-Leste's, but even prior to 1999 there was quite a high fertility rate," said Gusmao, referring to the country by its official name.

Poor education, poverty and the influence of the Catholic Church mean contraception is rarely discussed, while most families regard children as useful workers and a source of care in old age, Gusmao said.

"There is this attitude that kids have responsibilities to their parents, and not the other way around," she said.

Raising six children in a dusty farmhouse and mourning another six who never made it to their second birthdays, 43-year-old Berta Villanova says she has had enough babies.

The problem is that she does not know how to stop. Like most people in this impoverished, overwhelmingly Catholic country of one million, Villanova knows little about contraception. Indeed, she has never even heard the word.

"I want to stop (having children) but if God gives me more then I am ready to receive them," she said as two of her younger offspring ambled barefoot through the powdery dirt in front of her home.

At her village home, Berta Villanova agrees that children are a valuable asset for living on the land.

"Having lots of children can help with tilling the land and help with the housework, so when we go home from doing work, everything is ready and we can just eat," she said.

But for Villanova there are more reasons than just work for having so many kids. After suffering one miscarriage and then burying five children who died after bouts of diarrhea, Villanova knows well that just falling pregnant is no guarantee of having a healthy child.

"(I had more children) so they could take the place of those that had already died," she said.

Villanova's neighbour, Florentino da Cruz, a 54-year-old fisherman and father of seven, said having more children was not always an easy decision because of a dowry system under which the groom's family pays for the bride.

"For us Timorese, if you have a lot of girls, the livelihood is good, if you have lots of boys, then that's a loss. It's a business problem, that's the reality in East Timor," he said.

With so many babies being born, East Timor's rickety public services are under strain, said Amy Doyle from reproductive health organisation Marie Stopes International.

Under-funded and under-staffed schools are struggling to cope with the influx of students, meaning only around 20 percent of East Timorese graduate from high school, Doyle said.

Aggravating the situation is East Timor's roughly 50 percent unemployment rate and the continued presence of nearly 100,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from fighting between rival groups in the military and police in 2006.

"We've got a huge percentage of people living in IDP camps, and so they don't have any work, they essentially don't have much else to do, and they're still making babies," Doyle said.

East Timor's health ministry has made curbing the high fertility rate a priority, and the Catholic Church has been receptive to efforts to promote contraception, Doyle said.

But while the Church here may take a softer line than elsewhere, a lack of awareness of contraception among the population at large is a more potent problem, Doyle said, as is the lingering taboo it carries.

On top of that, some things are just not negotiable, Doyle said.

"There are many cases of abortion that occur in the country but they're all backstreet abortions because they are not endorsed by the Church or the government," Doyle said, adding that Timorese law severely punishes abortion, even when the mother's life is in danger.

While East Timor attempts to come to grips with the complex forces behind the demographic crisis, President Jose Ramos-Horta has another theory for why Timorese are such proficient baby makers.

Sitting in his office in Dili, Ramos-Horta joked that one of East Timor's top exports, coffee, could be to blame.

"It has all to do with our coffee - the Timor Arabica organic coffee has high Viagra content," he said, his deadpan expression emphasising the joke.

"So, young man, I advise you not to drink our coffee, your poor wife or girlfriend will suffer," he said.



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