The first female president of Timor-Leste descends the plush red-carpeted stairs in the country’s presidential palace and crosses the marble foyer to address a waiting pack of reporters. This is the president’s first media appearance after emerging from an hour-long meeting with President Francisco Guterres, the country’s head of state, with whom she has just finished discussing issues facing children in Timor-Leste today as part of World Children’s Day, Kids Take Over.
The takeover president, 14-year-old Graçia Antonia Gueterres Sanches Afonso, is professional and calm as she tells the media what she and her predecessor discussed.
“I presented my ideas to the president about children’s rights to education, violence against children, and nutrition, so that our government improves in these areas,” she says. “The government needs to look after the children who have been abandoned by their parents, and needs to protect underage children.”
In the president’s office, President Francico Guterres symbolically handed the Constitution of the Republic of Timor-Leste to Graçia, and the pair spoke about child rights, corporal punishment, malnutrition, access to education, and other issues Graçia identified as being important to children in Timor-Leste.
Agreeing with Graçia, President Francico Guterres voiced his concern over the use of corporal punishment in schools in Timor-Leste and highlighted the importance of education for children.
“As President of the Republic, I have always found a way for the children to go to school to have a brilliant education,” President Francisco Gueterres said. “Girls and boys deserve equal rights and no discrimination in their families or in their schools.”
“The Ministry of Education has to observe and monitor the condition of children’s education from primary school until senior high school,” he told Graçia. “Parents have to protect and take care of their children. I don’t think we have to punish or hit our children or use violence against them. All we need is to retrain them and kindly teach them.”
Youth voices represented
“I was nervous at first,” Graçia says with a grin, as a reporter at the press conference asks what it was like to be president for an hour.
“But I feel really excited. I am the representative of young people in Timor-Leste. This is my first time, so whatever I have got today I would like to share my experiences with my friends.”
President Francisco Gueterres addressed the media, thanking Graçia personally for her work, and UNICEF for organising the presidential takeover. He reiterated the importance of the rule of law and education in protecting and promoting children’s rights.
Then, President Graçia spoke for the last time.
“For those who want to be president please don’t feel afraid, and keep on studying so you can achieve your dreams,” Graçia told the media pack, smiling confidently into a TV camera, which will broadcast her words to thousands of other young Timorese people.
The press conference closes with applause and uniformed guards stand to attention as the president and her predecessor shake hands. He guides her to the palace entrance, and the pair share words inaudible to the gathered crowd as President Gracia folds her full skirt into the backseat of a motorcade car. She heads back home for violin practise and President Francisco Guterres resumes his role.
An hour as president
Independence hero Francisco Guterres was elected president of Timor-Leste in May 2017, and on 20 November 2017 handed his role over for one hour to 14-year-old Graçia, who lives in a Dili suburb with her parents and two sisters.
In between studying, helping at home and playing music, the girl prepared for her hour-long opportunity to speak directly with the country’s head of state about issues facing young people in Timor-Leste.
The afternoon rain has come and Graçia ducks her head under the veranda at her house in Dili. She’s returned home to share her day with her friends, who have gathered at her house to hear her news. She answers questions and shared her excitement, grinning as her friends talked over each other to get their questions out. Benjamin watches proudly as his presidential daughter speaks.
Now that Graçia has been president for an hour, does she think she’ll have more confidence?
Graçia grins and replies immediately.
“I already had confidence,” she says, laughing. Then, she pauses.
“I want to work with my community to promote children’s health, to make good lives for children in Timor-Leste,” she says. As the daylight dies and we wave goodbye, the fifth president of Timor-Leste gives a final smile and returns inside the house. A normal child again – so, by definition, extraordinary.