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The Right to Education, Not Punishment, in Timor-Leste

Home > Learn More > Stories & News > The Right to Education, Not Punishment, in Timor-Leste
By Natasha Cleary, Youth Engagement Officer, ChildFund Timor-Leste
Posted on 8/31/2015


Children Against Violence present their anti-corporal punishment skit to around 500 classmates and 10 teachers.  

“What’s 20 plus 20?” the stern teacher asks 13-year-old Lili.

“Thirty?” Lili replies, shy.

What?” the teacher screeches as she swats Lili on her head with a book. “You’re as stupid as a donkey!”

This is a scene played out all too often in classrooms across Timor-Leste. In fact, a 2014 government survey found that 67 percent of children have suffered physical punishment at school.

But the scene above is not from real life — it’s from a drama aimed at changing community perceptions about violence against children, performed by children on stage before an audience of more than 1,000.

“Teacher, that is corporal punishment against Lili,” says Sika, 14. “The Ministry of Education has zero tolerance for corporal punishment!”

“We have the right to education, not to receive corporal punishment,” Lili adds.

For most Americans, corporal punishment in schools is a relic from the past, something most children in U.S. schools will never experience. But this is not true for children in many other countries, including Timor-Leste.

Although the government there officially has banned corporal punishment, physical discipline — such as hitting or forcing children to kneel on the ground — remains common in Asia’s newest nation.

A small audience member of the Children Against Violence group's drama against corporal punishment and promoting child rights.  

ChildFund Timor-Leste’s education program assistant, Mariazinha da Costa, says this is because people living in rural areas have little awareness of existing laws or policies. “When we asked teachers, students and their parents at the start of the project whether teachers have the right to hit children, a very high number of them thought the answer was yes,” says da Costa. “We need not only top-down policies and laws, but we also need to raise awareness and change behavior at the community level.”

The Children Against Violence project is one way that ChildFund works in Timor-Leste to raise awareness about the government’s policy against corporal punishment. Theatrical dramas developed and performed by students in ChildFund’s programs spread important messages about children’s rights and the need to end violence against children.

“We developed the plays because we knew traditional media such as newspapers or television wouldn’t be very effective, since in rural areas, literacy levels are very low and most families don’t own televisions,” says da Costa.

The 10-minute dramas are performed at schools and local events for hundreds of students and community members.

One of the stars of the show is 15-year-old Abay, who plays a caring mother modeling positive discipline as an alternative to corporal punishment.

“I feel happy because the drama we presented was really wonderful,” she said after a performance in her school. “I can use it in my life and share what I have learned with other people.”

Children Against Violence make their own IEC materials

In addition to this community-based advocacy, the Children Against Violence project also campaigns at the national level. Eleven members of the theater troupe traveled for five hours to a neighboring district of Timor-Leste to participate in a national children’s forum on child rights.

The children performed their play in front of an audience of about 1,000 people, including teachers and students from 17 schools; national- and district-level officials from the ministries of education, justice and health; and members of parliament.

According to da Costa, it was important for ChildFund to create a channel through which children can communicate with government decision makers.

“Children are the ones who experience corporal punishment, so their voice is the most credible when talking about how it affects them and that it is still happening,” says da Costa. “It also demonstrates to children that they can be active participants in the development process from a young age, and that children themselves can find solutions and take action against the problems in their own communities.”

For Abay, the performances have sparked a growing self-assurance about raising her voice on issues that affect her and her peers. “Through theater, we can learn and increase our confidence in ourselves,” she says. “When we started doing theater, we felt nervous, but once we did the performance, we didn’t feel nervous anymore.”


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