Women are expected to not have bare arms, low cut tops or short skirts or wear bikinis, though they seem to be able to wear tight jeans. Foreign women are given more leeway. Timorese women do not usually go out alone and single Timorese women probably won’t be allowed to go out alone with a man unless they are related. Timorese who have lived overseas are exceptions. Drunkenness is frowned upon, especially for women. Many Timorese women are comfortable spitting in public. [Source: Culture Crossing]

Among the traditional practices challenging the status of women in East Timor or women in Timor-Leste include not being able to inherit or own property and the cultural notion that women normally belongs to the home. Apart from these customary concepts, East Timorese women were also confronted by the occurrence of domestic violence. Rape cases and sexual slavery were allegedly committed by East Timorese pro-integration militias during the September 1999 crisis in East Timor. One of the organizations that promote empowerment and foster gender equality for the women of East Timor is the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). [Source: Wikipedia]

Bkoon posted on Virtual Tourist: “Dili-dwellers love eating betelnut as I saw many of them eating, including woman. As you walk along the waterfront, you will get to see fruits stalls selling all kinds of local fruits like bananas, mangoes, papayas, etc. During the lazy afternoon period, you will see the womenfolk who are manning the stalls helping one another to pick out hair lice. [Source: bkoon, Virtual Tourist, December 5, 2004]

In East Timor it has traditionally been the duty for adult women ( from the age of 15) to remove all body hair with the exception of the hair on the head.

Teen Mothers and Lots of Kids in East Timor

In 2010, Matt Crook of AFP, wrote: “When Graziela Sarmento was 16, she got pregnant, dropped out of school, left her parents behind in the countryside and went to live with her aunt and uncle in Dili, East Timor's capital. Three years later her life revolves around Bruno, her son, with her dreams of an education dashed and hopes for a decent job almost nil. Sarmento's story typifies the growing problem of teen pregnancy in East Timor, a conservative Catholic country that is struggling to cope with one of the highest fertility rates in the world. "When I knew I was pregnant, I dropped out of school. I was shy, I had to protect my dignity," she said, adding that Bruno's father, a former classmate, wanted nothing to do with the child. "I wasn't able to finish school. After the baby came, I had to stay at home with my son," she said. "I regret it." [Source:Matt Crook, AFP, April 16, 2010 \~]

“Timorese women have an average of six or seven children each. A UN study last year found that among those aged 20 to 24 more than half had at least one child, and of those, 60 percent had their first child before they were 19. The problem of teen mums is being exacerbated by the fact that the population of 1.1 million people is also very young, with about 60 percent under 24 years. \~\

“Some analysts say the average age of first pregnancy is likely to fall, citing studies that the level of sexual activity among young people is on the rise. "For people in the rural areas, when they are 20 years old and we ask them how many children they have, they say they already have two or three," said Veronica Correia, a maternal and child health expert from the Alola Foundation.” \~\

East Timor Sends Teen Mothers Back to School

In 2010, Matt Crook of AFP, wrote: “It's common for teenage mothers everywhere to drop out of school, but in East Timor they have almost no chance of resuming their education later, analysts say. The cultural barriers to their return to school are so strong that many young East Timorese women believe they lose the right to an education once they give birth. "It needs to be socialised to the community, mostly because they just don't know" that education is their right, Correia said. [Source:Matt Crook, AFP, April 16, 2010 \~]

“So the government has set up a new policy unit to focus on measures to bring young mothers back to the classroom. "We're going to establish a new unit that will take responsibility, particularly in terms of inclusion, and then after that we'll start with designing the policy," explained education ministry official Afonso Soares. And with the help of the University of Minho in Portugal, East Timor's former colonial ruler, the government is drafting a new junior high school curriculum that will include sex education for the first time. \~\

“But the challenges are huge. According to the World Bank, less than half of the children starting primary school in East Timor will reach grade six, and the adult literacy rate is only about 50 percent. Ameerah Haq, East Timor's new special representative of the UN secretary-general, called on the government to allocate a larger slice of the state budget to educating young women with children. \~\

“Citing UN research showing that children are more than twice as likely to die or be malnourished if born to mothers with no formal education, she said it was vital to "promote an educational setting that eliminates all barriers" for pregnant adolescents and young mothers. It might be too late for Sarmento, who has lost hope she will ever finish school and doesn't expect anything to change. "I want the government to do this in the short term. I want them to prove it," she said.” \~\

Women and Politics in East Timor

Matt Crook wrote in IPS, “Like many women in East Timor, 34-year-old Mariquita Soares joined the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) party during the nation’s 24-year resistance struggle against Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999. Today, she is proud not only of her involvement in the fight for independence, but of her participation in the campaign to get women in East Timor more involved in politics and decision-making as it moves from a traditional structure to one that is more modern and pluralistic. “Based on our culture, women would normally just stay in the house and so they didn’t have motivation to get involved in politics,” she said. [Source: Matt Crook, IPS, July 27, 2009 ==]

“When I was in high school, I was interested in politics and then I saw what happened to my family. In 1979, we went to the mountains. Two of my brothers were killed by Indonesians and my father was put in prison. I joined Fretilin because it was involved in the struggle for independence,” added Soares. Soares hopes to make it into parliament one day. “Now I am learning more about politics and maybe at the next election, if I have an opportunity, I would be ready to become a minister or member of parliament,” she said. ==

“What differentiates East Timor from its neighbouring countries in South-east Asia is that the national parliament is made up of 29.2 percent women – the highest in the region. In 2000, East Timor’s First National Women’s Congress saw the setting up of women’s network Rede Feto, which went on to lobby for a quota of 30 percent of seats in the national parliament for women. The Electoral Law in East Timor, enacted December 2006, states that for every four candidates a political party fields, at least one must be a woman. As a result, 19 of 65 members of parliament are female and women hold three ministerial posts: justice, finance and social solidarity. ==

“But although women are better represented in parliament, leader of the National Unity Party Fernanda Borges says there is still some way to go before their voices are truly heard. “We still haven’t found many career politicians who will fight for the same issues year in year out to get policy implemented for the benefit of the people. Until we get to that stage, we have women in parliament, but we haven’t really got women participating,” she said. “The ones in parliament because of the quota system, we have to show the population that we are worth it. If we don’t, they will ask what the point of having all these women there is. The country is not yet convinced that this is what they need,” she added. ==

Borges says it takes time for women to come into politics and learn about the workings of democracy. “Those are things you learn through confidence and through having other responsibilities prior to coming here. Women who have never had any responsibilities and then all of sudden end up in parliament – they would find it hard to assert themselves,” she said. “I think the issue is sometimes not the numbers, but the effectiveness. To be effective, we need to build people’s capacity. The level of exposure in the country is a little low for women because of the (Indonesian) invasion and because we were closed off from other countries and never really lived democracy.” ==

Political Organizations and Women in East Timor

Matt Crook wrote in IPS, “The occupation of East Timor, first Portugal and then by Indonesia, was “characterised by oppression”, according to the report ‘Participation of Women in Politics and Decision Making in East Timor, published through the Integrated Programme for Women in Politics and Decision Making (IPWPDM) of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). UNIFEM set up an office in East Timor in 2000, two years before the country became independent, to provide financial and technical assistance to programmes and strategies that foster women’s empowerment and gender equality, particularly in political participation and decision making. [Source: Matt Crook, IPS, July 27, 2009 ==]

“Soares is part of a collective of women’s wings of political parties called Haforsa Feto Politika Haburas Demokrasia no Unidade (HFPHDU), founded in September 2008 with 45 female politicians from 14 political parties. The group is supported by UNIFEM and headed by Josefa Kai-bete, also from Fretilin. “There was no unity among the women’s wings so we set up this group to help us unite all the women from different political parties,” she said. “We have done activities such as attending training on transformative leadership and public speaking. We also have a programme that every three months we have a dialogue with women parliamentarians,” she added. UNIFEM continues to support members of parliament (MPs) with training in transformative leadership – leadership based on the principles of inclusion, consultation and participation — so they can respond to gender issues when engaging with their constituencies. ==

Kai-bete, 46, says that the vast majority of women in East Timor have an affiliation with one of the political parties. The work of groups such as hers is to empower these women to become involved in political decisions. “We want to be involved in decision-making because it’s not just men who can be leaders, but women also,” she said. An increasing number of young women, who usually follow their families’ party affiliation, are showing an interest in politics, added Kai-bete. East Timor is traditionally a patriarchal society and women have not always had the confidence to speak up, she said. ==

“The Grupo das Mulheres Parlamentares de Timor-Leste (GMPTL), a women’s caucus, GMPTL is a mechanism for organising women to defend their rights in a way that future parliamentarians can learn from. As well as being a leading member of the Social Democrat Party and the vice-president of East Timor’s national parliament, Maria Paixao is the president of the GMPTL. Paixao became involved in politics in 1975 when she joined Fretilin. GMPTL raises awareness of issues that impact on gender and strengthens women’s roles in parliament, including building their capacity to analyse legislation and state budgets with an awareness of gender considerations. ==

“The second generation of the GMPTL was formed in October 2007 through a resolution passed by parliament “to promote women’s equality of gender and reduce all forms of discrimination between men and women for all East Timor”, said Paixao. “Now the parliamentarians need more training because many of the women, they just came from the field or from their families, so we need capacity for them to work on our mission,” she added. “We have carried out training on gender responsive budgeting (GRB) and team building and also some more training about how to make laws and on decision making. This is also our role and we need this training to give the women the capacity to start work,” she said. ==

“UNIFEM instigated East Timor’s first GRB initiative with the Ministry of Finance and Planning to bolster the capabilities of key ministry staff, MPs and women’s organizations to analyse state budgets from a gender perspective. This in turn put the focus on poor and excluded women, the impact of which is felt on the national and local level. Also supporting the cause is the Gender Resource Centre (GRC), which was established by parliament through the GMPTL in October last year as a three-year joint initiative supported by UNIFEM and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “The main goal of the GRC is to provide support to the women and men parliamentarians, especially in pursuing gender equality and promoting gender mainstreaming,” said Lumena Freitas, UNDP’s senior manager for the GRC. ==

“Endah Augustiana, UNDP’s general adviser to the national parliament, said, “The constitution guarantees that men and women have equal rights and so we have to promote gender equality in legislative work and the overseeing of the parliament, as well as in terms of democratic representation.” The centre facilitates consultations with MPs on various issues, such as legislation on abortion in the recently promulgated penal code. “We conducted consultations with doctors for women MPs and some men MPs so doctors could provide them with information about abortion before it was debated in the plenary,” said Augustiana. Although women’s political participation in East Timor has improved in the years since independence, it is a work in progress.” ==

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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