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Harnessing the Community and Leaders to Protect Children in Timor-Leste

Martha Nelems
Guy Thompstone
Angie Bamgbose
July 2022

Photo: EPA-EFE/Lukas Coch

The Government of Timor-Leste, supported by UNICEF, first invited Child Frontiers to research and facilitate the design of its nascent child protection system over a decade ago. Since then, the partnership has evolved, and incremental interventions have gradually refined the system.

Timor-Leste only became an independent country in 2002 and has had to build its institutions and social services gradually. But these circumstances meant that the Government has not had to deconstruct or reform a legacy system; instead, these unique circumstances have permitted the Government, supported by development partners, to envisage a culturally appropriate system with children, families and community at the centre. For this reason, a child and family welfare system was designed and articulated in national policy rather than a narrower child protection system.

 

A determining feature of the partnership has been the collaboration with a Technical Working Group comprised of six dedicated social welfare officers and managers. This group, formed in 2015, has been central to the experimental phase of the process, turning a system concept into reality in pilot municipalities. Initially guided and trained by the Child Frontiers team, the group members assumed the lead in consulting with municipal teams in Oecusse and Viqueque to formulate ways to deliver support and services to vulnerable families and children at risk of harm.

In Oecusse, an enclave of approximately 70,000 people nestled in the Indonesian part of the island, the municipal social service team comprises government officers, civil society organisations, religious leaders, and community elders. The Technical Working Group members regularly travelled from Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital, to Oecusse to lead reflection and design processes with the municipal team. Through a series of interactive workshops, the trainers helped municipal teams to think through new approaches for reducing vulnerability, preventing family separation, and keeping children safe from violence. The group established a system for coaching and mentoring the teams and regularly reviewed what interventions worked within the Oecusse context and what did not. This structured reflective practice has enabled the municipal team to modify its approach to service delivery, remaining agile and adaptive to the emerging demands for support.

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In line with the Child and Family Welfare Policy, the Timorese trainers worked alongside their municipal counterparts in Oecusse to design a system that: 

  • uses culturally relevant approaches for providing support and services to children and families in Timor-Leste; 

  • shifts the focus from a narrow emphasis on child protection to a more holistic focus on the wellbeing of children and families;

  • provides prevention and response interventions for the whole family, with a focus on including children and caregivers in decision-making and building the capacities of community leaders;

  • strengthens relationships forged between formal (government) and non-formal (community) duty-bearers in the system; and

  • harnesses positive traditional practices, including village mediation processes, for child wellbeing and protection. 

 

After two years of testing the system, there have been tangible results. For example, early indications were that fewer children were being referred to residential shelters, and alternative kinship care arrangements were being found in the community. The municipal teams in Viqueque and Oecusse both reported that they had defined and harmonised their individual and collective roles for promoting child and family welfare and are increasingly working in a coherent, integrated and trusting way. As they have noted, the challenge is to ensure that their new way of working becomes institutionalised and embedded across different agencies and community functions.  

 

In a positive sign of progress, in 2020, the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion created a specialised unit that will continue the work begun by the Technical Working Group. This decision, which was a long time in the planning, will enable the group to expand its work, formalise its training programme, and complete the roll-out of mentoring the new municipal teams across the country. But beyond the institutional changes to embed the child and family welfare policy, a fundamental shift has occurred in the approach to service provision. As trainers note, the importance of listening to children, family and communities is now rooted in service design and implementation. As a result, communities say that they feel more respected, consulted and included in decision-making.