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EAST TIMOR: Politics – Women Take the Plunge

Matt Crook

DILI, Jul 7 2009 (IPS) - Women in East Timor are being wooed to participate in the local council elections, likely to be held in September.

Paulina Lemos (left) and Agustina Soares are preparing to be first-time candidates in the forthcoming village council elections Credit: Matt Crook/IPS

Paulina Lemos (left) and Agustina Soares are preparing to be first-time candidates in the forthcoming village council elections Credit: Matt Crook/IPS

"I hope there will be more women participating. This is one of the rights of women now," says Paulina Lemos, 29, who intends to run in the suco (village) level polls.

"I want these elections to be free and good," she adds.

Lemos was present at a workshop in Ermera district, Jun. 27, one of many being organised across the country in the run up to the election, to raise gender awareness and women’s political empowerment.

Female participation in the last suco election, held at the end of 2004 and start of 2005, was poor. Only seven of the 66 women who ran for the village chief's post won. And, 27 of the 2,228 for aldeia (sub-village chief) emerged victorious.

There are an average of about 10 seats at stake in each of the 442 sucos in East Timor. While the post of suco chief, aldeia chiefs, and lia nain (traditional elder) are in the general category, three seats in each village council are exclusively for women. These are: one of the two seats reserved for youth and two seats on each council.

Lemos will run as a candidate for one of the seats reserved for women. "The women here today, we need to hold many workshops to encourage them to participate in this process," she told IPS in an interview on the sidelines of the workshop.

Workshops such as the one in Ermera are part of a project by the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) and the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Rede Feto, a collective of women’s groups, is collaborating with the U.N. agencies, and implementing the project through its member organisations in Oecussi, Lautem, Ermera and Viqueque districts.

Project coordinator Maria Evelina Iman says training programmes will support women – those in the poll fray and those considering running – in the lead to the elections, as well as afterwards.

"There are several key areas we are working on in the training: public speaking, transformative leadership, socialisation of the CEDAW [international bill of rights for women] and electoral law for suco elections," she said.

"The process is not only targeting candidates per se, but actually trying to realise the potential of women’s leadership. We are identifying district facilitators and then we carry out the training of these facilitators in the districts – 50 in each- hoping that we reach out better to the communities," she added.

"The main objective of the programme is to give support to women to participate and assist them to carry out the agenda or plan that they have for the community," said Iman.

For Lemos, "the most important things to develop in communities are (gendered) education, health and infrastructure."

By increasing women's participation in the suco elections, the government hopes that local development plans will be more responsive to achieving gender equality.

Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality (SEPI), Idelta Rodrigues, told IPS: "This year we are collaborating with UNIFEM … I would like to have more women participating in the election process."

Whether voters in East Timor will vote for individual candidates or a group is still being debated.

In previous elections, individuals bid for election in an open system, with many candidates representing political parties. This year, the system could change.

A law was drafted with a proposed "package system", which would see people voting for grouped councils, rather than individuals, with a blanket ban on candidates standing for election representing political parties.

Haforsa Feto Politika Haburas Demokrasia no Unidade (HFPHDU), a coalition of the women's wings of the various political parties here, has been working with UNIFEM and Rede Feto on ways to support the training of their members in the districts.

Josefa Kai-bete, head of HFPHDU, says, "Because the elections will come soon, our plan is to train candidates who want to run. Right now we are in the midst of organising a (training) programme on civic education."

Giving women, who have been historically marginalised by patriarchy in many districts, the skills needed to make their voices heard, to vote and to run for election is a priority in East Timor.

"In our culture in the past, women were not allowed to speak up because we are a strong patriarchal society, so that's the problem. UNIFEM supports women now, regardless of political affiliation, to help get them involved in many activities such as training and so on," says Kai-bete.

Maria Paixao, president of the women parliamentarians' caucus, the Grupo das Mulheres Parlamentares de Timor-Leste, thinks unless there is a change in people's attitude the involvement of women in the community elections will be very limited.

"It's very difficult because the suco election is in the grassroots. It's very difficult to convince people to change their mentality," she observes. "I hope that some women will apply and that there will be more women in comparison with the last elections," she adds.

Twenty-four-year-old Agustina Soares, who plans to run for a youth position in Ermera, is very optimistic that the workshops, training sessions and capacity building efforts will yield results.

"Compared to the last election, women are more confident now," she believes.

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