Helping Children In Timor-Leste Get The Best Start In Life

It’s hard to be a child in Timor-Leste. New Zealanders are helping to change that.

Timor-Leste is one of the youngest nations in the world having gained independence in 2002. UNICEF NZ wants their youngest citizens to have the best start in life.  

Amy Shanks explains how the money donated by New Zealanders is providing early childhood education in the most remote parts of the country.

To reach Ermera, a remote district in Timor-Leste, we needed a four-wheel drive. Going up the hills, the pot-holed roads turned into single lanes. We had no option but to reverse down the other side.

For many children living in remote areas of Timor-Leste, distance to school is a huge issue.

Children miss out on the opportunity to learn because schools are too far away from their villages. Only one in four children go to preschool.

By the time I arrived at the Ermera Community preschool, there were 40 or 50 children waving excitedly. They were so proud to sing in Tetun. You can’t be shy about singing in Timor-Leste! Soon I was giving my own waiata to the crowd of teachers, parents and beaming kids.

This preschool is one of 123 community pre-schools for children aged 3-5 in remote parts of Viqueque and Ermera municipalities that have opened since 2015, helping more than 3000 vulnerable children. They are the result of a four-year partnership project between UNICEF and the Government of Timor-Leste, funded by the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and generous New Zealand donors including the Morgan Foundation and the David Ellison Charitable Trust.


It’s hard to be a child in Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste has one of the highest rates of stunting in the world. If a child’s diet is inadequate or poor, they can have permanent mental and developmental delays in growth. I met children that I thought were two years old. I was shocked to find out that they were actually four-year-olds.

Childhood diet is so important for brain development. If children don’t get enough protein, it reduces their ability to learn and their brain development suffers.

It’s quite common for children to die from preventable diseases like diarrhea. Getting children to hospital or a clinic is a huge challenge. Often children don’t make it.


Although UNICEF reports there has been a decrease in the under-five mortality rate, malnutrition is still a huge issue in Timor.

Many communities don’t have safe, clean water or soap so children are getting sick and then have to miss school.

UNICEF believes that no child should be left behind. Every child should have the opportunity to learn. Even in the most remote and hard to reach communities.


Five-year-old Arilis sits proudly on his mother’s knee at the community preschool. He has been coming to the preschool for the last year and he loves it.

“I like playing with footballs and using the books, the pens and jumping” says Arilis.

His mother Souiaa says Arilis is learning to write and count. “It’s helping him become clever” she says.

In conjunction with the Government of Timor-Leste and the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNICEF are working to develop an alternative preschool model that the Timorese Government can adopt. We are developing standards for licensing and accreditation and for training of community preschool facilitators.


It’s very common in developing countries for children to copy letters and numbers, and that’s the extent of their learning. We have successfully changed this so that now kids are discovering the importance of play, singing and reading books.

A leader of the village, Felciano told us that the children are happier now they are learning at preschool. “They are more confident. There is a big difference between the children with preschool and no preschool” said Felciano.


All the parents told us that the children who have been at preschool, are now achieving better results in primary school. Investing in children in Timor-Leste is vital.

As I wave goodbye to the kids, it is evident just how important this UNICEF-supported preschool is for a small community in Timor-Leste. Every child has the right to a bright future.

Our life-changing work for Timor-Leste's children is only possible due to the generosity of Kiwi donors.

Please join us and help transform a child's life today.

Donate now and the NZ Govt will match every $1 you gift by $3!