Being a young person isn’t easy, in any country, and it can be especially difficult for those living in remote areas. In locations across Timor-Leste, access to information is difficult and limited. Stigma can prevent conversations about sexual and reproductive health, and many girls are not graduating school due to unplanned pregnancy and marriage. That is why the work of Marie Stopes International in this context is so important.
Timor-Leste has made significant improvements to the lives and wellbeing of its population since its independence in 2002, yet many challenges remain, particularly for women and girls. The barriers to accessing important sexual and reproductive health information and services are deep and ingrained especially within rural locations.
In these hard to infiltrate regions, the work of Marie Stopes is vital. Through the Keeping Girls in School through Reproductive and Menstrual Health project, supported by the Australian government through the ANCP’s Gender Action Platform, Marie Stopes International and WaterAid partner to improve women and girl’s education, health, and social outcomes. A major part of the project involves delivering menstrual health and hygiene education sessions in schools in 12 of Timor-Leste’s 13 municipalities.
These sessions are empowering young women to make more informed decisions about their bodies. They facilitate positive change in communities by addressing the harmful social norms associated with sex and menstruation. 17-year-old, Selene*, is a confident young woman from Los Palos with a dream to become an English translator and then go on to work in the police force, who has benefited from this menstrual health and hygiene project.
“I want to make my parents and brother proud and show them that I can support myself,” said Selene.
Selene is the youngest of eight children and lives with her brother as both of her parents passed away. She relocated to Liquica with her brother when he got married. Selene attended a Marie Stopes Timor-Leste (MSTL) facilitated menstrual health and hygiene education session at her school. During the session she learned about why she was having her period, how to look after her body during this time and when she is most likely to become pregnant during her monthly cycle.
“Before I felt too lazy to do exercise when I was on my period but with the information that I was given I now continue to do exercise. It helps to be active to achieve my dream of becoming a police officer,” she said.
Selene wants to study overseas and has a plan for how she is going to reach her goals, but she has had a boyfriend in Los Palos for three years and his requests for sex cause her concern.
“These conversations are difficult and make me feel shy. He asks me to have sex but I still have a long way to my future. I want to finish school first and attend an English course,” she said.
Selene is happy to have learned more about her fertility, but similar to the 99% of adolescent girls in Timor-Leste who have not accessed contraception (DHS, 2016), her understanding of where to access more information and support is still limited.
These early discussions on menstrual health and hygiene open up a dialogue among young people about sexual and reproductive health. Which can help tackle taboo subjects that aren’t otherwise discussed. This gradual awakening provided through MSTL’s tailored education sessions in schools, provide young people a pathway to improving their sexual and reproductive health through informed decision making.
Help girls like Selene stay in school and reach their goals by donating here
*The name and some identifyng details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.