In a country with a teenage pregnancy rate of 24%, the Timorese government is currently considering the introduction of an alarming new family planning policy.
Largely inspired by Timorese religious beliefs – 98% of the population adhere to Catholicism – the proposal promotes the Billings Method as the leading form of contraception, with access to contraception itself granted only to those who are already married.
Support family planning for all girls and women in Timor-Leste The policy completely excludes the young and unmarried, which will not only deny Timorese women and girls their fundamental human right to make decisions about and have control over their own bodies, but will perpetuate the practice of child marriage and risk seriously harming girls’ health.
There is no doubt that it is crucial to respect and talk about the role that religion can play in efforts to empower girls and women through family planning, but this should not constitute a reason for countries to ignore girls’ and women’s rights and to endanger their health.
Teenage pregnancy risks
Teenage pregnancy is rife in Timor-Leste, with nearly 1 in 4 girls and young women having had a child before the age of 20. Of those aged 15-19 years old, 50% already have more than 1 child.
This is a serious cause for concern. The risks of health complications related to teenage pregnancy are extremely high, and maternal mortality rates in 15-19 year olds are 1,037 per 100,000 live births, meaning they are twice as likely to die as older women.
A recent report from Plan International, UNFPA and the Timorese government highlights that teenage pregnancy is not a phenomenon acting in isolation: it is also the principal cause of early marriage in Timor-Leste.
Teenage pregnancy is not a phenomenon acting in isolation: it is also the principal cause of early marriage in Timor-Leste.
The report’s findings indicate that if young people had better access to comprehensive sexuality education and sexual health services – including access to the contraception method of their choice – the high rates of both teenage pregnancy and child marriage could be dramatically reduced.
While visiting one of our projects in Aileu municipality recently I talked with a young woman named Felismina, who had her first child and got married as a result of her pregnancy when she was only 17.
Hearing her speak, it was clear that before she got pregnant, she had no previous information about sexual relationships, how pregnancy happens or what the risks linked to unprotected sexual relations and early pregnancy were.
The data shows that there are too many girls and young women in Timor-Leste in the same situation. Too many girls who, like Felismina, have neither access to, nor information about, reproductive health simply because they are unmarried.
A harmful policy
As well as being harmful to physical health, by promoting the Billings Method over more modern forms of contraception, the draft policy also ignores all the evidence showing the positive effects of safe and adequate access to family planning services on emotional and social wellbeing.
Research shows that when women and girls have access to family planning information, they are able to complete their education, create or seize better economic opportunities, and reach their full potential.
By contrast, when a teenager falls pregnant, her chances of finishing her education, becoming financially independent, entering into a career she aspires to, and taking control of her life, are considerably reduced.
Two steps forward, one step back
The proposed policy is at great odds with the Timorese government’s support for the cause of women and girls in other aspects of life, such as political participation.
The proposed policy is at great odds with the Timorese government’s support for the cause of women and girls in other aspects of life, such as political participaton.
By establishing quotas in parliament and local village councils to get more women into positions of power, Timor-Leste has shown that it values women and girls in society and will take the necessary steps to empower them.
The family planning policy currently being proposed is a far cry from this great progress.
Girls must have a say
If the Timorese government is serious about achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality by 2030, then this draft policy should be thoroughly reviewed and adapted to the current needs of the population.
What’s the best way to effectively respond to those needs? Hearing them. Young people’s voices, especially those of girls, must be at the heart of this policy-making process and the entire policy must reflect their views.
I am proud of what my country has achieved in the past 15 years, but today I must call on Timor-Leste to do more, to respect the rights of all women and girls, to listen to its children and its youth, and to ensure a better future for the nation.
Read the report: Teenage pregnancy and early marriage in Timor-Leste