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RIGHTS-EAST TIMOR: Women Learn the Political Ropes

DILI, Jul 27 2009 (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.

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.

“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.

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.

What differentiates East Timor from its neighbouring countries in South-east Asia is that the national parliament is made up of 29.2% 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.

The Grupo das Mulheres Parlamentares de Timor-Leste (GMPTL) was formed to overcome this challenge. A women’s caucus, the 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.

MP Fernanda Borges 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.”

(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific as part its series on gender and development, with the support of UNIFEM East and South-east Asia Regional Office.)

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