By Fatima ‘Lala’ Soares, Women and Girls Participation Program Manager for Plan International Timor-Leste.
In a country with a teenage pregnancy rate of 24 per cent, the Timorese government is currently considering the introduction of an alarming new family planning policy.
Largely inspired by Timorese religious beliefs, 98 per cent of the population adhere to Catholicism, this proposed policy promotes the Billings Method as the leading form of contraception, with access to contraception itself granted only to those who are already married.
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 their own bodies, but it will perpetuate the practice of child marriage.
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 endanger their health.
Teenage pregnancy is rife in Timor-Leste, with nearly one in four girls having had a child before the age of 20. Of those aged 15-19 years old, 50 per cent already have more than one 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, meaning teenage mothers are twice as likely to die as older mothers.
A 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.
The report’s findings indicate that if young people had better access to sexual education and sexual health services – including access to the contraception method of their choice – then the high rates of teenage pregnancy and child marriage could be dramatically reduced.
The new policy fails to respect national and international laws that ensure the right to health and family planning for all women and girls, regardless of their age or marital status. It will also undermine efforts being made to achieve reductions in these life-changing issues.
While visiting one of our projects in Aileu municipality, I talked with a young woman named Felismina, who got married when she fell pregnant at 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.
Access to family planning is a human right. As such, all women and girls must enjoy it. Being married should not determine whether girls have access to their rights or not.
As well as being harmful to physical health by promoting the Billings Method over more modern forms of contraception, the proposed 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 and seize better economic opportunities.
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.
In short, entire families, communities and countries benefit from family planning.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights, including contraception, play a key part in progress towards achieving gender equality, but it will never be achieved in Timor-Leste if the policies in place do not take into account the needs of all girls and women, without exception.
If the Timorese government is serious about achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to achieve gender equality by 2020, 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 the needs of girls? Listening to 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.