In traditionally patriarchal Timor-Leste, raising children has long been the exclusive domain of women, limiting their ability to pursue education and work, and excluding fathers from child-rearing. But a new UNICEF-supported parenting education programme is the first of its kind to focus on the unique role fathers play in their children’s lives. Read on to meet one father benefitting from the new information and taking the lead in his family.
RAILACO, TIMOR-LESTE – Watching 32-year-old Simiao Pereira gently helping his four-year-old daughter with her drawing on the family’s airy veranda late on a Friday afternoon, you’d be hard-pressed to believe the young father would ever be capable of raising a hand to the girl in anger.
But growing up in a traditionally patriarchal Timor-Leste, where men are taught to discipline their children with force, Simiao admits that he used to hit his four children.
“In the past, we were sometimes hitting our children,” Simiao, a farmer, says, “but now we know to just use words.”
Simiao is one of around 70 parents from Railaco, a semi-rural village on the fringes of Timor-Leste’s mountainous coffee-growing region, who are participating in a UNICEF-supported parenting education programme. The programme is working with parents and providing information on issues like nutrition, education, discipline, child protection and child-rearing.
A key component of the programme is recruiting a roughly even split of men and women to the programme’s information sessions, and to encourage men to see the larger role they could play in their families.
Ingrained gender roles: The man’s role in the family
It’s a significant change from how fathering has traditionally been perceived in Timor-Leste, a tiny tropical country with a majority Catholic population.
“The country’s patriarchal culture creates strict roles for men and women that make it difficult for fathers to participate equally,” says Manuela Oliveira Martins (38), Child Protection Officer, Ministry of Social Solidarity.
“Women have been seen as isolated, subordinate, defended by men, just following their obligations,” she says. “Look after the kids, prepare food for their husbands. In our culture, men were always in front, always giving directions, and women just waited to receive. But now, it’s changing slowly.”
Bright and articulate Manuela continues, “people still assume it’s just the mother’s responsibility to care for a child, and that some men don’t take their children to health clinics when they’re sick, or walk them to school, or cook and clean in the home.” “But we’re slowly making change,” she says, grinning. Manuela has been working with the Ministry of Social Solidarity since 2008 and since 2016 is coordinating the Ministry’s parenting education programme supported by UNICEF.
“In the past, it was accepted that men were responsible for disciplining and hitting children, and women were responsible for cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the home – giving fathers a free pass to ignore their children,” Simiao says.
He hastens to stress that this was before. “Not now,” he says, earnestly. “It’s not like that anymore. Now both men and women can cook, both can clean, both can go to work, both can raise children.”
According to Simiao a lack of parenting knowledge made things difficult. Parents and family members in rural areas of Timor-Leste commonly rely on each other for hand-to-hand knowledge. “In Railaco, the community didn’t realise the importance of protecting children from harm before” he continues.
“The community didn’t really pay attention, so I’m sharing this information with my neighbours and my children so that everyone can understand more,” he says.
Manuela explains that the programme is designed for all people, including grandparents, guardians, and non-biological parents.
“In the sessions people come from different education backgrounds, so when we run them we don’t think of ourselves as educators and them learners; we’re here to put our ideas together and work our ideas out,” she says. “We work to maximise people’s participation and give them correct information.”
New information about raising children gently
“People find the module on early stimulation most interesting,” Manuela says while talking about the training programme. “They learn how to care for children from when they are still in the womb. We see a real difference with children who are raised with love and care compared to children who are raised in environments where their parents are fighting or careless. We say, paying attention to your children and showing love will help them become good, intelligent people, and they listen.”
Simiao has attended parenting education sessions on early stimulation, nutrition, hygiene and education, and agrees that early stimulation changed his thinking. The facilitators of the training session have material for 10 sessions and have implemented eight sessions in Railaco village. For parents who can’t make it to the sessions, trained facilitators like Manuela make home visits, and key messages are repeated through radio dramas and community theatre performances to reach to the wider audiences.
Raising Timor-Leste’s next generation
“This one’s talkative,” Simiao says with a laugh, as his older daughter joins him and his younger daughter outside. He loops his arm easily around her waist, pulling the girl close to the chair where he’s sitting, and listens in to hear her news.
“As soon as she arrives home from school, before she even gets into the house, she’s talking to me, calling out for me,” he explains.
Simiao says he walks the girls to and from school, taking care to walk on the roadside, so his body shields the children from traffic. But don’t think the girls are too delicate. Simiao laughs as he describes his daughters’ courage, saying sometimes they can be difficult.
“But naughtiness can be good, because it builds their confidence,” he says, grinning. “When kids climb trees, some parents yell at them and throw stones, trying to get them down, but I just let them do it. You can assist them so they don’t fall.”
As Manuela packs up her charts and handbag and turns to walk up the hill to the main road home, the two little girls slip to their father’s side. He catches two small hands easily in his own and the family follows Manuela up the narrow track, waiting as she wheels a motorbike off the roadside and revs the ignition.
Two free small hands wave wild, exaggerated goodbyes as Manuela turns for home.