Women step forward in Timor-Leste’s historic elections

April 29, 2019

Women take part in a gender-based violence prevention workshop run by Alola Foundation.
Women take part in a community workshop run by IWDA partner Alola Foundation in Timor-Leste. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono.

For the first time in Timor-Leste’s history, the country’s 13 municipalities are due to hold democratic elections—ending years of political appointments and creating a pathway for an unprecedented number of women to run and win. Here, Sophie Raynor meets one female candidate, and the women of the Alola Foundation getting her ready to compete.    

Growing up in a small village in the rain-sodden rice-growing flats of Timor-Leste’s rural Viqueque municipality, Zulmira Fonseca Amaral, or Mira, was one of many girls in her primary school classrooms. But as they progressed past year seven, their numbers dropped. And dropped. Until by high school, Mira and her cousin were the only girls in the room. By university, she was alone.

Mira’s experience is all too common in Timor-Leste, where thousands of girls finish their formal education at primary school. Families need their daughters to help out in the home and on farms. Mira, as her family’s eldest daughter, would have been expected to drop out after primary school if it wasn’t for her public servant father’s insistence she continue learning. There was never enough money, she says; but they did have the natar, the rice paddies, and a small garden farm for growing corn and papaya. Her diligence sent her to the capital, Dili, for university and work. Later, she won a scholarship to study a community development degree in Australia.

“Our patriarchal system doesn’t give places for women to lead. But women have great potential to become leaders.”

Five years after her return home to Timor-Leste, she says it’s that upbringing that will make her a good municipality leader if elected.

“I understand the difficulties of living in a rural society,” she says, in a soft voice that belies the strength of her words. “Especially for the children who don’t go to school. Who are marginalised. Who are vulnerable. We must carry others to understand communities’ problems.”

Mira’s family is one of an estimated 80 per cent of Timorese families living in rural areas – many of them subsistence farmers, surviving on what they grow. Until now, the leaders of municipalities—the state-like administrative divisions one step below the national government – have been politically appointed by national leaders.

But now, in a move described by some as Timor-Leste’s ‘second independence’, parliament is drafting a bill to conduct its first-ever free and open democratic municipal elections.

IWDA’s partner, the Alola Foundation, has been there from the start.

Changing systems to let women in

 A leading women’s organisation in Timor-Leste, Alola nurtures female leaders and advocates for women’s rights – working closely with women candidates who contested village elections in 2016, which saw women in village chief positions rise from two per cent to 4 per cent, and agitating for changes to the prohibitive draft municipality election law, which currently requires candidates to belong to a political party, to work in the public service, and to hold a master’s degree –conditions which exclude all but a few.

“Women have the capacity and the ability to make decisions. They must be leaders, at all levels.”

National parliamentary rules state that every third candidate on a party’s ballot paper must be female; in 2018, it saw 30 per cent of seats in the national parliament filled by women. But at the municipality level, no such rules exist.

Evelina Iman is the advocacy program manager at Alola. She’s worked extensively on campaigns to elevate women candidates in village elections. Now, she’s turning her attention to a a different and critical stage – training candidates for the municipal elections, advocating for changes to the draft law, and arguing for the enactment of those same quotas at the municipal level to give more women a shot. She’s already made a formal submission to parliament and met with the Minister for Legislative and Parliamentary Reform.

Evelina Iman, Program Manager of the Advocacy Program of Alola Foundation
Evelina Iman, Program Manager of the Advocacy Program of Alola Foundation, in Dili, Timor-Leste. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono.

“We see now that women are scared to be involved in activities, to speak, to give their thoughts, they think they need help,” Evelina says. “We’re looking for a way to understand the things that restrict women from being leaders and what we can do.”

Alola has identified 25 potential candidates across all 13 municipalities and will soon commence training them in leadership, communication and policy development – the skills and experience required for candidates to thrive as leaders. She says the candidates are highly motivated, courageous and confident. They’re also working hard to change the environment that the women are campaigning in – recognising that there are external barriers that the candidates alone cannot address.

“We don’t have enough opportunities to make decisions. To sit in the decision-making level offers an opportunity.”

“Our patriarchal system doesn’t give places for women to lead,” she says, frankly. “But women have great potential to become leaders. We see now, starting already, women becoming ministers, becoming secretaries of state. Their presence is important. Their participation, in all areas, is important. The role of Alola Foundation is to give support to the women who are strong so that their voice, their participation, can make a big difference in politics.”

One step ahead

 Mira agrees.

“Women have the capacity and the ability to make decisions,” she says. “They must be leaders, at all levels, and access their rights. We don’t have enough opportunities to make decisions. To sit in the decision-making level offers an opportunity.”

A common idiom in Timor-Leste is to hakat ba oin, to step forward. Mira says that women with potential must be brave to push themselves; to hakat ba oin.

“Women with potential to step further forward, they can’t be scared to show that they can,” she says. “They ask me if I’m crazy to want to go [to the election]; I know how to hakat ba oin. We are the ones who must say we can.”

Workshop run by Alola Foundation
Women raise their hands at a gender-based violence prevention workshop run by Alola Foundation. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono.

The municipal election law remains in draft form and no date has been set. But the women are ready. They’re stepping forward. And critically, more people are making sure they have the space to step into.

“We women can’t just be quiet,” Evelina says. “We must speak. Time is now for women to speak out, to say what we want.”

Alola’s work nurturing women leaders is supported by IWDA’s Women’s Action for Voice and Empowerment (WAVE) program. This ground-breaking program is increasing the representation of women in diverse leadership positions across Asia and the Pacific, and is funded by the Government of the Netherlands.

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