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Activism and Aid

Chapter Four


An educated mother is likely to have better nourished and more healthy children, a smaller family, be more likely to seek education for her children and contribute to the family economy in a manner that can assist the family rise out of poverty (UN 2005). Gender inequality has a deleterious effect on the health and education of girls.

Timor-Leste has enshrined gender equality in the Constitution and has signed up to international standards of human rights. The national adoption of a policy of gender equality is seen by many in the rural areas as conflicting with customary practices, marked by strongly defined gender roles and responsibilities for men and women, regarded as the essence of Timorese culture. On the other hand, there is an active women’s civil society network which has been instrumental in lobbying for women’s rights and active in bringing about improvements in women’s status nationally.

Kinship, Customs and Marriage

Over 75 percent of the total population of Timor-Leste continue to live according to what is currently understood as ‘custom’ in rural communities. Customary practices dictate distinct roles for men and women: women’s work is defined by the domestic sphere and men are the principle decision makers. Culture, however, is dynamic and while today’s customary practices may be seen as ‘traditional’ they may actually be relatively recent. Niner (2011) identifies the three significant external influences on the status of women in Timorese society. These are the Portuguese colonial patriarchal elite, committed to conservative Catholicism; the violent and militarised society under Indonesian occupation, during which women’s roles and responsibilities shifted radically, and the international norms and gender policies of the UN administration and international agencies since 1999. In spite of changes, the rural areas remain relatively untouched:

When travelling out of Dili the state often seems to barely touch down within communities at all … The mode of communication remains predominantly oral; forms of social hierarchy are genealogically and patriarchally framed; and the world is understood and regulated by adat (customs) and lulik (belief in sacred objects, often fusing the human with the natural world), with Roman Catholicism layered over the top … In these communities, tribal-traditional social forms tend to regulate the world in a way that the state has yet to come even close to achieving. (Grenfell 2007:11)

The majority of the population live in rural areas in scattered hamlets (aldeias) or villages (sucos) where customary leadership and links to ancestral lands remains important aspects of family life. Historically the country was divided into a number of different kingdoms, with political authority resting with the liurai, or king, who presided over the land. The liurai’s power was balanced by the dato who has ritual authority from the ancestral order and values from his connection with the spiritual world (Trindade 2011). In Timorese culture, there is no separate category of ‘law’ but ‘lisan’ or custom comprises all the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in a community, such that the ancestors act as legislators and their living representatives, the lia nain ,1 become the judiciary (Hohe 2003:339). These individuals are responsible for resolving conflict through mediation between families and clans and for maintaining balance between people, their land and the ancestors. As ancestral rules are not written, elders in the community must ‘be in contact’ or ‘know the word’ of the ancestors (Hohe 2003:340).

The social structure includes clans which make up a hamlet organised around the clan’s uma lulik (sacred house). The local power system is hereditary, with a class structure which stratifies the house members, with the liurai and dato at the top, the majority as landowning commoners and at the bottom of the hierarchy a lower class of ‘slaves’ sometimes captured from other clans (Cristalis and Scott 2005). Kinship through blood or marital relations within a lineage or extended family is defined by the formation of an uma lulik : members of any uma lulik can trace their blood relations back to a common ancestor. The hierarchical structure places ritual authority with the highest house and other tasks, including political authority with other houses. McWilliams describes the notion of a ‘house’ as ‘a social construction and a ritualised focus for the articulation of social relations and exchange among sacred house members’ (McWilliam 2005). While the rigid class structure has now weakened, many aldeia and suco chiefs continue to be selected from families that carry traditional authority. Customary structures are central to local decision making across Timor-Leste, with some difference in social customs by different clans.

The structure determines the social and ritual life of the people, and any wrongdoing will be dealt with to restore balance. Male elders at aldeia and suco levels are responsible for resolving conflict through mediation between families and clans. Babo-Soares describes customary practice for conflict situations as seeking to mediate between opposing factions until they reach an ultimate goal of achieving continuing harmony and peace in society (Babo-Soares 2004:22).

More than a dozen major ethno-linguistic groups in Timor-Leste are divided into two major language groups – one linked to the Austro-Malay and the other to Papuan language groups. Timorese societies are patriarchal, with men holding decision making power, but in matrilineal societies in the south western part of the country, family lineage passes through women. In spite of their diversity, Timorese societies have more in common than differences. There is considerable intermarriage between groups, particularly amongst the educated elite that have moved to the capital.

Traditional structures emphasise community well-being over individual self-interest. This stands in contrast to the individualism predominant in many ‘Western’ societies. Social structures and customs vary between different ethno-linguistic groups, but all sacred houses play a pivotal role in establishing alliances between houses. Marriage alliances extend the family into the future through offspring and generate a peaceful bond (Trindade and Bryant 2007:20). A match, arranged by the lia nain of the two houses, represents a contract between the two clans in which fertility is seen to be handed over (Cristalis and Scott 2005). The marriage partners themselves are of lesser importance – rather it is what the two families bring to the partnership that is important (Victorino-Soriano 2004). There is a strong obligation for young people to comply with the demands laid down by customary practice.

Marriage alliances are at the heart of Timorese culture (Molnar 2010). Irrespective of their age, once married the person is considered to be an adult, so marriage is a significant marker of adulthood. Typically rural girls are married when they are sexually mature, while boys are likely to marry when they are economically productive or independent. ‘Girls marry at 14–18 years either because they are pregnant or their parents arrange it’,2 according to one female activist, while another noted the age of marriage for girls was typically during pre-secondary school and they are likely to be married to men seven to ten years older than themselves.3 In a culture where age is a source of status, this difference in age further reinforces the superior status of the husband.

It is common practice to undertake both traditional and religious wedding ceremonies which may take place several years apart. At the traditional adat4 marriage the settlement of the barlake,5 a proscribed exchange of gifts between the family of the groom and the family of the bride, will bind the bride to the husband’s family. The registration of marriage takes place through the church (Catholic, Protestant or Muslim clergy can register marriages) and the official church ceremony may not take place for some years. It is not uncommon for couples to already have children when the official church wedding takes place and the registration of marriage occurs. The Catholic Church only marries a couple after the traditional barlake negotiations are settled and these negotiations may be protracted.6

Traditionally marriage for a girl was arranged at puberty, but child marriage is now on the decline. However, cases of marriage as young as 10 are recorded, but the proportion of girls married by age 15 has declined from 7 percent amongst women now 40–44 years old, to 1 percent of women aged 15–19 years, in 2010 (NDS & UNFPA 2012). In 2010, ninety-two percent of female survey respondents between15–19 years old were never married, fifty-one percent were single at 24 years old and seventeen percent by 29 years old (NDS 2010:79). The median age of marriage has remained consistently around 20 years.

Married men are expected to participate, as responsible members of society, as decision makers, while women as wives and mothers are responsible for the household and domestic sphere. Young rural women often move directly from childhood to marriage, often lacking education or experience that could expand their knowledge. Parents exert control over girls’ activities, explained as follows: ‘Girls before marriage belong to the parents, thus have less right to decide. Boys belong to parents but have more rights if they go out, but not to bring back problems. But a girl might get pregnant’.7 Familial concerns with the purity of girls, risks of pregnancy outside of marriage and potential loss of barlake are important issues for poor rural families, while individual rights have lower importance. In customary societies, a strong sense of obligation and reciprocal and mutual support places the community’s interests at the apex of the moral order (Harris 2006). In spite of the strongly Catholicised culture, many women get pregnant before marriage. The reason, it was suggested, was that some young women exert a form of self-determination, getting pregnant to the man they choose, to force their family to accept the marriage and barlake offered so the marriage could go ahead quickly8.

Silva has described how Portuguese colonial discourses have led to attitudes and observance of customary practices being stratified between the urbanised Timorese (ema Dili) and ‘the people from the hills (ema foho)’. She further explains:

If someone says that barlake is merely about ‘buying’ a wife, and hence a barbaric custom, s/he is presenting himself as a person from Dili (ema Dili), that is a modern/polite/civilised individual. On the other hand, one may say that barlake is a way of recognising the ‘value’ and the ‘origins’ of the bride and of her family as well as a toll for establishing alliances amongst families. By saying this, a person is presenting himself as an authentic East Timorese, someone who knows and honours his own traditions and understands the ‘real’ meaning of barlake; someone strongly connected to the hills (Silva 2011:152).

Young Timorese have varying positions on these issues. Some male activists argued that the barlake system is a major constraint on both education and development, because limited and precious family resources are siphoned away to meet customary obligations of ceremony and exchange.9 This puts constraints on women, according to a Baucau activist:

People spend more money on traditional ceremonies rather than on education. Marriage has a negative effect on education for children. There is no improvement in your life because money is spent on barlake. Women are not involved in development partly due to politics and partly culture: parties do not choose women candidates for good positions as people consider that once women are married they should stay home.10

It was suggested that barlake limited the possibility of directing resources to education for family members or improved economic activities. In the coffee growing district of Ermera, which has the lowest level of literacy in the country, the practice of spending all the family income from coffee sales on barlake, wedding and funeral ceremonies is considered to be a cause of the particularly poor development indicators in that district. Following research and engagement on this issue by academics at the national university, local councils passed by-laws to put monetary limits on how much a family can spend in these ceremonies.11

The centrality of marriage customs to Timorese culture lead to gender differentiated attitudes towards education. Educating boys is seen as more important than girls because married men, except in the few matrilineal areas, stay on their cultural lands. When women move to their husbands’ land (except in matrilineal societies) the value of her education is considered to be lost by her family. Young women explained that arranged marriages or pregnancy are a major cause of school dropout with many rural girls taken out of school in pre-secondary school (years 7–9) in order to marry, while some others are not permitted to travel the long distances from the villages to the post-primary schools.12 As high schools are mostly located in the towns and nearly half of all secondary school students are in Dili, children often need to leave their village to attend school (Ministry of Education and Culture 2006:8). The numbers of girls attending primary school are almost equal to those of boys (Gender Parity Index: GPI 0.98), in pre-secondary (age 12–14) the attendance of girls is slightly higher than boys (GPI 1.02), but this is reversed with boys significantly outnumbering girls in secondary school (GPI 0.92) and tertiary studies (GPI 0.70) (NDS & UNFPA 2012:32– 33). This limited participation in education by post-puberty females reflects the traditional and stereotyped view of roles of women and girls in the family and the community (Ministry of Education and Culture 2006:15). Although educational opportunities for girls are unequal, the change that has taken place is significant. Twenty-five percent of women completed pre-secondary or secondary school in 2010, compared to just eleven percent in 2004, and ninety-one percent of women over 60 years old have never been to school, though this figure is just eighteen percent for those 15–24 years (NDS & UNFPA 2012:34–35).

Gender-based Decision Making and Family Violence

Young women are encouraged to have children: a Timorese woman with a large number of children is considered senior to another with only one or two children and a wife who does not get pregnant every year may be subject to suspicion about her fidelity or fertility (Thatcher 1988). Child bearing starts immediately following marriage and Timorese women have large families. In 2007 Timor-Leste had the highest fertility rate in the world with an average of 7.8 children per woman, although 2010 figures suggested a drop in fertility rate to 5.7, and 62.5 percent of the population is under 24 years old (NDS 2010). More than two-thirds of Timorese women have become mothers by age 25 but there is little expressed desire by either men or women to have fewer children. Only 3.5 percent of women with one to three children and 9.4 percent of women with four or more children have used contraceptives (NDS 2010).

For a number of reasons the concept of family planning is not a priority for the majority of Timorese. First, children are highly valued and, as previously noted, having a large number of children grants a woman higher status. Second, most Timorese have lost family members during the occupation. During this time an estimated 200,000 Timorese died. Unsurprisingly there is a desire to rebuild their families. Third, Indonesian clinics ran a ‘family planning program’ based on forced sterilisation and forced use of injectable contraceptives or sterilisation.13 This was strongly condemned by the Catholic Church. The Church’s objection to both contraceptives and the Indonesian occupation has placed the use of contraception amid notions of oppression and sin. The church now promotes the ‘natural rhythm method’ of birth control, which requires acceptance and a degree of selfcontrol by men, and it does not oppose condoms being promoted in HIV/ AIDS education projects.14 While many women have little control over their fertility, high maternal and infant mortality rates result from limited access to health services, the young age of mothers, the frequency of childbirth and poor health and nutrition of many mothers (Belton, Whittaker et al. 2009).

Sexual and reproductive health research has found that much effort is given to responding to reproductive needs, but there is less focus on providing necessary information and sexual services for youth, leaving adolescents vulnerable to sexual exploitation (Wayte, Zwi et al. 2008). The use of contraceptives by women prior to motherhood is negligible (NDS 2010). At the same time, young motherhood and frequent pregnancies leaves little time for young married women to participate fully in society through education, paid work or other activities outside the home (Wigglesworth 2009).

Gender relations in Timorese society dictate that the husband provides the house, food and money, and a wife is expected to do domestic duties, usually in the context of unequal power of decision making. A female activist explained how unequal power relations between men and women lead to domestic violence: ‘men resolve problems with authority (including violence) while women are expected to remain silent and stay at home’.15 A study of nearly 3000 women found thirty-eight percent of women had experienced violence since the age of 15 years, and twenty-nine percent experienced physical violence ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ in the previous twelve months (NDS 2010). According to research with Timorese refugees in 1975, respondents claimed that in traditional marriages: ‘the relationship is unequal because usually the wife belongs to her husband and his family and must always remain submissive to them’ (Thatcher 1988:73).

In Covalima, where there is a high incidence of matrilineal social organisation, women are still required to listen to their husbands and accept and obey men’s decisions. Research found that stability within the household is seen to be maintained where the wife is subordinate to the husband who is chief of the house and the key decision maker. Also a woman who expresses her views too much is likely to anger her husband, and risk a beating (Victorino-Soriano 2004).

Domestic violence is observed to be equally as common among the young couples of today as it was in previous generations; the young age of marriage and responsibility for children, together with the fact that young fathers have not established any mechanism for economic support, is blamed for heightened tensions between a couple that often lead to domestic violence.16 Women who marry young are at significantly greater risk of violence by their partner, with low levels of education of the woman or her partner, and early marriage, also risk factors (Hynes, Ward et al. 2004). A staggering eightysix percent of women believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife for reasons such as she goes out without telling him, she argues with him or she neglects the children (NDS 2010:214).

It has been suggested that children are beaten as a matter of habit, following values that young Timorese learnt in their own family life. At the launch of a UNICEF report into family violence in 2006, the Deputy Minister of Education and Culture explained that during the liberation struggle people became accustomed to living with violence, resulting in a particular ‘culture of violence’. This results in domestic violence perpetrated by young men who repeat the behaviour of their parents.17 This research found that sixty-seven percent of children in school had experienced their teacher beating them with a stick, while thirty-eight percent had been slapped on the face. More than half of all children had also experienced being beaten with a stick and shouted at by their parents (UNICEF 2006). Such expression through violence has also been said to arise from the patriarchal social structure, years of conflict and a militarised education during the Indonesian occupation which left many Timorese men with no other tools at their disposal (Myrttinen 2005). These portrayed masculinities have been actively constructed and need to be deconstructed through gender-sensitive strategies.

Since the passing of the Domestic Violence Law in 2010, the understanding of when physical abuse becomes ‘domestic violence’ and therefore subject to the Domestic Violence Law, has been subject to cultural interpretations. In a study of almost 500 young men, thirty percent of young men believed that it was okay for a man to beat his wife if the wife made a mistake, and sixty percent accepted a lower level of violence of a husband slapping or pushing their wives. The degree of acceptance of this behaviour increased as they got older and level of education had no discernible impact on this. The report noted that the education system currently does nothing to inhibit the trend of men developing aggressive masculine behaviours as they grow older (Wigglesworth, Niner et al. 2015). Further, national machinery (such as the LADV) have been put in place abruptly, without socialisation about the meaning of equality for men and women, that could have enabled citizens to accept and reconcile these changes with customary practices.

Struggle for Gender Equality in Timorese Civil Society

Timorese women started advocating for greater equality during the liberation struggle. FRETILIN’s women’s wing, Popular Women’s Organisation of Timor (Organisação Popular da Mulher de Timor or OPMT), promoted the status of women amongst the political leadership of the resistance struggle and raised the political consciousness of women about the values of liberation, democracy and equality (Alves, Abrantes et al. 2003). These women challenged the Timorese traditions of polygamy and barlake which were outlawed by FRETILIN in the first Manual Político (political manual) in the mid-1970s (Aditjondro 2000:130).

Women played a crucial role in the clandestine movement at the organisational, political and logistical level and, as a result of their political work, many women were subjected to systematic sexual violence and rape by Indonesian soldiers (CAVR 2005). The clandestine movement was in fact composed of more than sixty percent women, who risked their lives to transport food to the guerrillas on the front line, or took up arms in the front lines themselves (Cristalis and Scott 2005:39). Yet while male heroes were recognised in the post-conflict era, no female combatants were included in the formal disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programs (Thu, Scott et al. 2007).

FOKUPERS,18 set up in 1997 to support women victims of violence, has since independence played a major role in bringing issues of domestic violence into the public arena. Women’s organisations OPMT and Organisation of Timorese Women (OMT)19 continue to operate, providing a grassroots network which enables the voices of rural women to be heard. Rede Feto was established in 2001 as a network of women’s organisations as an outcome of the first National Women’s Congress to present a united women’s perspective in the political arena. It holds a Women’s Congress every four years to bring together women from the districts and Dili to discuss women’s issues. It has played a major role in advocating for a women’s quota in parliament, resulting in the current requirement for political parties to field one woman in each three party candidates. The NGO Women’s Caucus was set up to support the process of promoting and supporting women candidates and arguing for their nomination amongst political parties (Trembath and Grenfell 2007).

Other women’s NGOs include the Alola Foundation, established to nurture women leaders and advocate for the rights of women which and has played a significant role in promoting maternal and child health and early childhood education.20 Young Women’s Group of Timor-Leste (GFFTL),21 supporting rural literacy and women’s empowerment, and Strong Women Working Together (FKSH), focusing on women’s livelihood projects,22 were both set up by young women student activists, and both established working relationships with OMT to reach the grassroots level.

Apart from within these women-run NGOs, the opportunities for women in NGOs are limited, according to FONGTIL, the umbrella organisation of Timorese NGOs. Within Timorese civil society, FONGTIL has observed that typically women are found only in financial roles, a role traditionally ascribed to women, and in ‘women’s’ activities such as health, education and gender issues (Wigglesworth and Soares 2006). Young women are notably in the minority in civil society organisations and progressive thinking about gender has not yet penetrated many Timorese civil society organisations.

Entrenched, unequal gendered attitudes have been described by female activists who believed that male activists do not want to encourage women in leadership. Indeed, interviews with male NGO leaders sometimes demonstrated either a lack of interest or a lack of appropriate strategies to address gender inequality (Wigglesworth 2009). Consequently, few women are visible in Timorese NGOs in the districts and educated women tend to concentrate in Dili where they can work as activists more freely and effectively.

Reluctance by local NGOs to question their own cultural practices exists because men in civil society, like others in society, internalise their cultural norms. In an internationally funded community development project in Latin America, it was found domestic violence cases were not taken to court because it was thought that women would be rejected from their communities for going against their spouses. Even forced child marriages in the communities were legitimised by NGOs as a cultural tradition in spite of the fact they were considered rape in law; legal rights were thus dismissed (Barrig 2007:123). NGOs did not question these cultural practices in the context of the law.


Gizela de Carvalho studied English and became a translator when the international community arrived in Dili. At the age of just 24 years, she set up her own organisation FKSH when the international NGO she worked with withdrew from Timor-Leste in 2004. Gizela continues as Director of FKSH which promotes economic empowerment of rural women. She is a key contributor to the National Women’s Congress and is frequently invited to represent Timorese women at international conferences and meetings.

Timorese researcher, Josh Trindade, argues that men and women have complementary roles rather than a different status because they operate in different realms where feminine ritual power is protected by the ‘outside’ male political power, regulated by the lulik or spirit world. The argument sometimes heard in Timor-Leste, that gender issues are a foreign concept not appropriate to Timorese culture, fails to recognise the long-held convictions of Timorese women who have struggled for gender equality over decades. Activist women play a vital social role in this regard.

Empowerment for Women and Family Health

For women to be empowered, they must be given equal opportunity in development activities that will enable them to exert more control over their lives. Empowerment involves redressing unequal power relations and has been described as ‘the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them’ (Kabeer 1999:437). A measure of empowerment is the increased ability of the poor to make political, social or economic choices, related to three inter-related, indivisible but culturally determined dimensions: access to resources, agency to define one’s goals and act on them, and self-assessed achievements in the process of empowerment (Kabeer 1999).

Historically, gender issues have been overlooked, as the household has been understood as a basic unit of economic measure with a male head of household. Women’s interests were completely overlooked in development programming until Ester Boserup first drew attention to the fact that most African farmers were women, and women were often disadvantaged by agricultural development interventions (Boserup 1970). The reality is that women in most poor countries play a major role in agricultural production but are often seen by policy makers just as wives and mothers (Jaquette and Staudt 2007:24). ‘Women in development’ interventions at this time were based on the concept that it was more ‘efficient’ to engage the female fifty percent of the population in productive activities to make economic development more efficient, rather than giving attention to gender inequities (Ostergaard 1992; Parpart 1995). Some useful conceptual tools were developed to analyse gender relationships and work-loads.

Critics argued that a key issue for women was the unequal balance of power between men and women and overcoming the disadvantage which results in women making up seventy percent of the world’s poorest. A focus on ‘gender’ rather than ‘women’ in the late 1980s aimed to promote strategies aimed at changing the gender relationships that defined women’s roles and subordinate position (Moser 1991). Highlighting women’s ‘triple burden’ of being responsible for the productive role of food production, domestic or reproductive responsibilities of cooking, washing, collecting water and firewood, caring for the children and child bearing, as well as fulfilling roles and obligations with respect to community activities, Moser argued that unpaid domestic labour and the community responsibilities that comprise a large part of women’s social obligations are not valued. Men’s work on the other hand is valued because it is generally remunerated and carries with it some measure of social status or political power (Moser 1991).

The market economic policies were found to further impact on women as privatisation and reduced public services led to increasing burdens on women to provide for the family (Kabeer 1994). Already overloaded with domestic tasks and community roles, women were expected to also make and sell produce to raise cash for the newly imposed school fees and health expenses for their children, making women victims of neo-liberal economic policies (Jaquette and Staudt 2007).

Empowerment of women requires recognising and striving to overcome the disadvantage that their gender confers and supporting women by removing obstacles from their path and giving encouragement to take charge of their lives (Blackburn 2004:220). Gender mainstreaming policies are now promoted across development institutions to ensure gender equality exists across all aspects of organisational and public policy. Timor-Leste has adopted a gender mainstreaming approach, as have many of the major aid and development organisations that support it. Often the implementation of these strategies has not lived up to its ideal. Sometimes gender mainstreaming has been found lacking due to the failure of the institution to internalise gender equality measures by donor agency management and staff (Jaquette and Staudt 2007:38). Other times activities are directed towards women’s ‘feminine’ role (such as caring for small animals and home gardens) as a result of passive if not overt resistance in the cultural context in which they operate (Barrig 2007:130). Yet, the importance of women’s participation in economic, social and community development was highlighted by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, in his speech on International Women’s Day 2005:

Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health – including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation. And I would venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.23

One of the most intractable indicators of poverty in Timor-Leste, child malnutrition, could be addressed through women’s empowerment. Globally, evidence suggests that women’s empowerment is the most effective way to achieve improved family health. The Health and Demographic Survey of 2009–10 shows that 58 percent of Timorese children are stunted and suffer from malnutrition, whilst a massive 19 percent of children are severely affected by malnutrition. Women, particularly young mothers, need the ability to decide which crops will be produced on the family plot, knowledge of how to put more nutritional food on the table, and greater control over their reproductive health.

Timor-Leste’s customary practices dictate women’s work defined by the domestic sphere, and as men are the principle decision makers, women are expected to ‘stay home and be silent’.24 This negatively impacts on expectations by and of women in relation to their participation in development projects, such as committees, user groups, or community action groups. This can reproduce and exacerbate existing forms of exclusion, for example existing community power structures used in international development projects may result in the traditional male leadership becoming the key or only source of contact (Mosse 2001). While participatory processes are intended to involve and listen to ‘the community’, women, who lack time and may not necessarily be accepted in community decision-making forums, may not be represented. It is suggested these processes have the potential to benefit women only if practitioners of participatory methods first address gender power relations in the community (Crawley 1998). The question of who participates and who benefits are critical questions, as the voices of the more marginal may barely be raised, let alone heard in these spaces, argues Cornwall (2003). Women may be said to have ‘participated’ simply because demands have been made on them to supply physical labour necessary for the implementation of a project, or because they have sat quietly in a meeting without making their views heard.

Due to the limitations on women in rural society, many young rural women who obtain a secondary or tertiary education do not want to return to the rural areas. Today’s young women seek to escape the hold of tradition after completing higher education, by getting a job or seeking a husband in the urban areas.25 Others return from overseas study to reject the idea of being ‘exchanged for buffalo’.26 Traditionally most women did not work outside the home; for example, before independence nurses and teachers were predominantly male. Due to changing gender expectations, by 2006 women made up an impressive 76 out of 113 applicants to the Catholic Teachers College,27 and by 2012 women made up 20 percent of the country’s police service.28 This suggests a significant change in expectations among some members of the younger generation. Young women are more visible as leaders within civil society groups than previously. In 2006 one young woman was elected from among her predominantly male peers as coordinator of their youth theatre group in Baucau29 and another was similarly chosen as the coordinator of the youth group in her bairro in Dili.30 The idea that young women can be leaders appears to be more prevalent among younger men and women.

Perhaps the strongest symbol of change concerning the participation of women in contemporary Timor-Leste is the number of women in senior office. The Fifth Constitutional Government included twenty-four women of the sixty-five members (38 percent) of the National Parliament, giving Timor-Leste the highest proportion of female parliamentary representatives in Southeast Asia. There were also two women ministers (ministers for Finance and Social Solidarity) and three vice-ministers (two in Health and one in Education) in the Fifth Government.


Both gender and rural-urban differences have impacted on people’s experience of ‘development’. In Timor-Leste, kinship alliances bound by marriage are at the heart of Timorese culture and carry expectations that Timorese women will fulfil domestic and subservient roles. However there has been a long-standing campaign for greater gender equality and, although these traditions limit the opportunities for young women, many seek to broaden their engagement through community activities or civil society organisations. In Dili, Timorese women have successfully established various NGOs that are addressing and changing gender norms, but in rural areas change is slow and more difficult for women to realise. A high level of female participation in national government stands in stark contrast to the rural situation. As more young rural women achieve higher levels of education, however, they may be in a position to challenge the prevailing social norms to promote more gender equitable approaches.

1     The role of lia nain is sometimes described as a ‘spokesperson’ or ‘judicial authority’. In either case they play a ceremonial role through carrying the wisdom of the ancestors.

2     Interview Coordinator GFFTL, Dili 1 October 2005.

3     Interview, da Carvalho, Dili, 25 August 2006.

4     Adat means custom or tradition, the term deriving from Indonesian.

5     Barlake is the term used for the ritual exchange of goods between the bride’s family and the groom’s family. The groom’s family gives the means of wealth creation, typically livestock which may be represented by several buffalo or as many as eighty buffalo in elite families in the district of Lautem, and the bride’s family give an exchange gift of home production such as traditional woven cloth or tais and food products.

6     Interview, Director of the Teachers’ Training College, Baucau, 18 August 2006.

7     Interview, Covalima Youth Centre female staff, Suai, 16 September 2005.

8     Personal communication, Martins, Dili, 15 August 2006.

9     Interview Samala Rua, Dili, 31 July 2006.

10   Interview, Community Education Foundation member, Baucau, 18 June 2006.

11   Personal communication, Mateus Tilman, Community Development Department, UNTL 10 August 2013.

12   Interviews: Abrantes, Dili 30 July 2006; Covalima Youth Centre staff, Suai, 16 September 2005.

13   In the late 1990s I heard many stories of women being forcibly sterilised or injected with Depo-Provera without their consent when they attended a government clinic or hospital. Consequently many Timorese were fearful of government clinics and would only attend Catholic clinics.

14   Interview Vicente, Suai 7 August 2006.

15   Interview Director of Rede Feto, Dili, 23 August 2006.

16   Personal communication, Martins, Dili, 15 August 2006.

17   Launch of the ‘Speak nicely to me – a study on practices and attitudes about discipline of children in Timor Leste’, by UNICEF, Dili, 11August 2006.

18   FOKUPERS is the Indonesian acronym for East Timor Women’s Communication Forum. It was the first independent women’s NGO.

19   OPMT formed as FRETILIN’s women’s wing during the occupation, as mentioned previously. The Organisação de Mulher Timorense (OMT) was established as the women’s wing of Conselho National Resistencia Timorense (CNRT) in 1998, which mirrored OPMT but embraced women from broader political affiliations within the pro-independence movement. Both organisations continue to exist.

20   Alola was established by then First Lady Kirsty Sword Gusmão in 2001 (see

21   Grupo Feto Foinsa’e Timor Lorosa’e (GFFTL) was the women’s wing of the student organisation ETSSC, which became a separate NGO after independence.

22   Young Women Working Together (Feto Ki’ik Servico Hamutuk – FKSH) was set up in 2004. It recently changed its name to Feto iha Kbi’it Servico Hamutuk, meaning ‘strong women working together’, retaining the original acronym FKSH (see


24   Interview with Director of Rede Feto, Dili, 23 August 2006.

25   Interviews, Coordinator GFFTL Dili 1 October 2005; Covalima Youth Centre staff, Suai, 16 September 2005.

26   Interview; UNDIL lecturer, Dili, 25 September 2005.

27   Interview with Director of the Teachers’ Training College, Baucau, 18 June 2006.

28   UN Secretary General’s address to Timorese parliament on 15 August 2012.

29   Interview with Buka Hatene theatre group, Baucau, 18 August 2006.

30   Interview, Coordinator of Humanitarian Study Club, Dili, 21 August 2006.

Activism and Aid

   by Ann Wigglesworth