For 16-year-old high school student Maria, falling accidentally pregnant before her graduation was a real and dangerous possibility. Approximately one in every four girls in Timor-Leste will have a child before turning 20, and teenagers know little about sexual relationships, reproduction, and contraception.
“When I entered secondary school, we had something like sexual education in our biology lessons, but we actually only talked about the human body in general,” Maria says.
Talking about sex is taboo in conservative Timor-Leste, and traditions may prevent young people from speaking candidly about their experiences.
If young people had better access to sexual education and sexual health services, high rates of teenage pregnancy could be dramatically reduced.
Young people often hide sexual relationships, and access to contraception and information about sexual health and pregnancy is limited.
But recent research commissioned by Plan International Timor-Leste and UNFPA indicates that if young people had better access to sexual education and sexual health services, high rates of teenage pregnancy and child marriage could be dramatically reduced.
Digital technology bringing health knowledge up-to-date
In partnership with Marie Stopes Timor-Leste, Plan International Timor-Leste has created a smartphone app, Reprodutiva, to provide a safe and confidential space for young people to have their questions about sexual and reproductive health answered by professionals.
App users can ask questions, share tips in group chats, and organise consultations and medical appointments. Expert advice is provided by staff from Marie Stopes Timor-Leste.
Questions already answered through the app include, “What is ovulation and how is a baby made?”, and queries about traditional beliefs that prevent women from washing their hair when they have their period.
“In the past I have sometimes used the internet to get more information about these issues,” explains Maria. “But there is not much information available in my language, Tetun.”
Maria says she can use Reprodutiva to ask confidential questions of health experts, and receive direct responses with clear, helpful information. Reprodutiva is a Tetun-language Android app, available on the Play store.
Etha Mota, Plan International Timor-Leste’s Girls’ Empowerment Programme Manager, says a reluctance to talk openly about sexual and reproductive health affects all members of society, and that speaking to teenagers reveals the limits of their knowledge.
“In the past I have used the internet to get more information about these issues, but there is not much available in my language.”
“We already knew that knowledge about sexual and reproductive health is very limited,” she says. “But when talking to the teenagers it became obvious that many of them were confronted with these topics for the first time. When given the chance, many of these young people were very curious and loved to ask their questions. The opportunity to ask all their questions through the app directly and confidentially is a great option to learn more about what happens to their bodies during puberty, about sexuality and about health.”
Reprodutiva provides a new opportunity for young people to improve their knowledge, explore their rights and build their networks. And for young women like Maria, may be a crucial tool between an unplanned pregnancy and a future she decides.