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Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

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This International Literacy Day, we’re celebrating 12-year-old Eunike Gusmão from Timor-Leste, who is writing stories to inspire her community, help her peers learn to read and to share the message about the importance of family.  

She is one of 32 young local authors who have contributed stories to a digital library implemented by ChildFund Timor-Leste and partner Library for All.

We asked Eunike why she decided to write stories. “I want to inspire and motivate other kids like me to write stories,” she said. “I also wanted to share the message about the importance of family to other kids.” 

Eunike is inspired by her mother. When she heard that ChildFund and Library for All was running a writing competition, she leapt at the opportunity to enter. ChildFund called out to local authors to write an original story for young readers.

Eunike entered a story, titled Thank You Santa, about a young boy searching for a family. The story is about a little boy who goes in search of Santa at the North Pole. The little boy asked Santa for a family for Christmas. Santa couldn’t stand to see him sad, so he found the boy a family for the holidays to make him happy.

Eunike’s story and those entered in the competition by other young authors were accompanied by illustrations reflecting Timorese art and culture and published in the digital library.

Eunike is in Grade 7 and when she is not writing, she loves to read. Her favourite genres are history and fantasy. “My favourite books are Who is Napoleon, the Great Wall of China and What was the Titanic,” she said.

Eunike encourages her peers to take their education seriously. “Don’t waste your time doing something that is not that important, focus on your goal,” she said. “If you have a goal don’t just say it but put it into action.  Never give up hope and never be shy.”

Eunike believes that reading is important to learning. “Reading can teach us new things and learn something that is interesting and can keep us knowledgeable.”

International Literacy Day is celebrated every year to highlight the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. This years’ theme is ‘Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide’. Despite much progress, there are still literacy challenges persist with at least 773 million young people and adults lacking basic literacy skills.

ChildFund is supporting children like Eunike, every day of the year to learn to read so that they can access a quality education and reach their full potential.

ChildFund is committed to partnering with local organisations in the communities where we work, to reduce poverty and achieve long-term improvements in the lives of children and their families.

We believe that working with local partners enhances our capacity to realise children’s rights and improves the effectiveness and reach of the programs we support. Working together, we can harness local knowledge and expertise, ensure community needs are met, and promote transparency and accountability.

In this new series, we will introduce you to our incredible local partners, whose work is changing the lives of children throughout the Asia-Pacific. This week, we sat down with CEO Maria Imaculada Gutteres to talk about the Alola Foundation, their programs and their work with ChildFund Australia in improving the health of children living in rural areas, in Timor-Leste.

1. When did the Alola Foundation start?

The Alola Foundation was founded in 2001 and we just celebrated 20years of working in Timor-Leste.

2. Why is the organisation named Alola?

Alola was the nickname for Juliana dos Santors, a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped and forced into marriage in 1999. The Alola founder, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, worked with her family to advocate for the return of their daughter to Timor-Leste. They presented the case to the United Nations in Geneva, saying that she was at risk of suffering from gender-based violence. Juliana was eventually granted the option to return home. The foundation was called Alola to honour their first piece of advocacy for young women.

3. What is the mission and vision of the organisation?

Alola’s vision is that the women in Timor-Leste have equal status in all aspects of life. We believe that women have the right to access and participate in decision-making, economic, health and community leadership opportunities.

Our mission is to improve women’s rights and leadership, support healthier families, increase access and quality of education for women and children, and strengthen women’s small enterprises.

The Alola Foundation is committed to supporting career development for women and offers a range of professional growth opportunities to its staff. Alola has a motto that says, ‘strong women, strong nation’ or in Tetum, ‘Feto forte, Nasaun forte’.

4. Where does Alola Foundation work in Timor-Leste?

Our advocacy work promotes women’s and children’s rights. We look specifically at gender-based violence, sexual violence and domestic violence. We’re currently working in 12 municipalities.

We also have a focus on maternal and children’s health. Alola works with the Ministry of Health to train health professionals, midwives, nurses and nutritionists to improve nutrition programs and educate new mothers on breastfeeding. They’re also establishing support groups for new mothers.

In 2016, our Women’s Cancer program shared vital information about breast and cervical cancer with women in 13 municipalities. The program supported testing by working with local programs in Indonesia that have the facilities to process test results and provide treatment. It also provided transport for women in remote areas to access these services and information.

It’s also in our mission to increase access to education. We worked with ChildFund to set up a mobile reading library and to upskill teachers in rural areas. This is increasing the literacy levels of children in rural and remote areas. We also supported tutors and teachers to help children with their reading

5. you mentioned, you work in many remote areas. During your activities have you encountered any difficulties or challenges within the community where you work? If so, how did you overcome those difficulties?

We do encounter many challenges working in remote areas. We often work with community members because we cannot implement programs on our own. But we sometimes struggle with low numbers of volunteers because people are busy. Sometimes volunteers leave or move away to study or they live too far away to be able to help us on a regular basis. COVID-19 has also meant we have had to stop some activities in some regions. We are continuing to monitor our regional programs and maintain them through this time.

6. Alola Foundation is known as an organisation that empowers women, what do you think about this?

Alola was established with women’s rights in mind and as an advocacy group against gender-based violence. Since then, we have expanded our programs and integrated them with other activities. We are challenging the patriarchal system in Timor. When we lift women and strengthen them, they have more agency to make decisions, take part in the economy and support their children with adequate nutrition and quality education. We also support women facing gender-based violence with a safe space and the resources to rebuild their lives. Through this support, they can become empowered community leaders.

7. How is the partnership between Alola Foundation and ChildFund a benefit for families and communities in Timor-Leste? What is your thought on that?

We have really appreciated partnering with ChildFund Timor-Leste. We have worked with them for almost three years now on health and education. They have supported us in developing our own internal policies and finding more funding to support our work. The partnership really benefits the community too. We can share more information about maternal health. They supported us in building a reading centre for children, testing their literacy levels and tracking their progress. This is a very important step to improve the future of the community.