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Women in East Timor push for political power

Fatima Celestra
Celestra Fatima is a candidate for village chief in the October 29 election. Photo ©2015 Jerry Redfern.

Timor-Leste will hold elections on Oct. 29 to determine the country’s next local leaders. And for the first time since this tiny Southeast Asian nation gained independence in 2002, women occupy prominent spots on village ballots.

“The times are different now,” says Celestra Fatima, a village chief candidate in her district, Aileu. “After independence, as women, we realized that we also have rights—the same rights as men. Because of that, I’m willing to run for village chief.”

Fatima symbolizes a shift in Timorese society. Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor, was a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years before Indonesian forces invaded in 1975 (with a nod from U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger). That move led to one of the 20th century’s most brutal occupations, which claimed the lives of 200,000 people—a third of the population. Timorese men and women fought side by side in the decades-long struggle for independence. Their aim was national liberation. Now, many women say, it’s time to fight again—for women’s rights.

Prime Minister Rui Araujo notes that gender equality is “enshrined in our constitution.” Yet reality doesn’t always live up to the law. While Timor-Leste leads the region in women’s participation at the national level—with women occupying 38 percent of parliament seats—the countryside lags far behind. Women currently account for only 2 percent of local leaders. “It’s widely proven, scientifically acknowledged, that women have a very important role in the development of societies,” Araujo says.

That’s why the NGO Plan International Timor-Leste, along with other humanitarian organizations, launched a campaign aimed at putting many more women candidates on the local ballots. The campaign, dubbed “I’m Ready,” is part of Plan’s Women and Girls’ Participation in Local Governance program to get more women into office so they can prioritize issues that affect them, such as gender violence and discrimination. Much of the initial training involves cultivating self-confidence among village women and prepping them for public speaking. “Support and motivation are essential,” says program manager Fatima Soares.

The campaign initially aimed to recruit 100 women candidates. Final numbers are not in, but Soares says the program had already exceeded its goal by early September. “These women have been trying to study hard and have gone through many challenges, so I hope they can enjoy their success,” she says.

“The drive to create a more equal society has been there since independence,” Araujo tells me, but traditional gender roles “are still biased towards men, and we need to change that.” Women do “most of the work at the agricultural level, at the household level,” he says, “and most of the times those types of works are unpaid.”

Fatima confirms this: “I can say that 24 hours, we are full with work.” Nationwide, women rise before dawn. Many hike to fetch the family’s daily water. They light the fire, cook breakfast for their husband and kids, prepare the children for school, then head to the fields to dig. They return home to cook lunch, wash clothes, clean the house, and prepare more food for dinner. Any other work—like politics—is squeezed into late-evening and rare off hours.

On average, Timorese women have six kids, and nearly 20 percent of all rural girls are married by 18. Childbearing deeply cuts a woman’s chances for higher education or a career outside the home. The lack of education, and detachment from wider society, leaves many women with low self-esteem. “Many Timorese women do not feel free to express their ideas,” says Domingas de Jesus, secretary of a women’s association in Aileu. “They are not confident to speak about any issues affecting them.” Soares says this is a key reason Plan’s campaign focuses on building courage and the gumption to speak with authority in public.

Overwork, isolation, and timidity have critical consequences for a woman’s health—physical and mental. “A lot of women have never left the village,” says Dan Murphy, an American doctor who founded the Bairo Pite Clinic in Dili in 1999. “They don't get adequate health care, they can die in childbirth in their own home,” he says. “That's why we lead Southeast Asia in maternal mortality.” Tuberculosis is widespread, and women are more at risk. “They're cooking over an open fire the whole time, breathing in smoke. If there's not enough food, they probably don't [eat].”

Women also suffer shocking levels of abuse. “It’s just normal, if a husband beats a wife,” says Sidalia do Rego, the women’s health coordinator at Bairo Pite. That’s a common attitude among men and women—and it is reflected in the data. Research shows 38 percent of Timorese girls have experienced violence by the age of 15, and up to half of all women suffer abuse at home. Domestic violence was outlawed in 2010, but years later, many men still do not view wife beating as a criminal act.

Traditional marriage customs can exacerbate this mentality. Bride prices are still common: the groom’s family pays the woman’s family in gold, silver, money, or cows. “It’s like we buy the woman,” says Rosaria Martins da Cruz, director of HIAM Health, an NGO that works on combating malnutrition. The attitude, according to da Cruz, is: “I buy you now, you come to me … you never say no to me, you always say yes. … The woman is not independent to speak.”

Thus, the push for more women’s leadership at all levels of society—from the government to the household.

Fatima, the village chief candidate, has a strong support network around her in Aileu, where many women already work outside the home. One women’s community group has started a small cassava chip business using homegrown ingredients cooked in the women’s kitchens and sold in Dili markets. “It’s really a benefit for us,” says Domingus da Conceico, a group member involved in the business. “And we see the change.” Women are earning money and sending their children to high school. Others counsel neighbors on domestic abuse. “This is very important,” Conceico says. “Our dream is for the group to be strong and support each other.”

It was Fatima’s uncharacteristically outspoken character that initially won her the support of her community. “Before, when I was a very young child, I did not have a dream to become a leader,” she says. But her family and neighbors urged her to run for village chief. And she will, with no regrets. Even if she loses, she says, “through this, I can have experience.”

Reporting for this story was made possible by a fellowship through the International Reporting Project.

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