By Sophie Purdue
Flying over the mountains from Dili to the district of Covalima provides a perfect picture of just how remote some areas of Timor-Leste are. Homes are scattered in valleys and perched on mountain ridges, with dirt roads snaking upwards providing access to these small villages.
In Timor-Leste, almost 70 per cent of the population live in rural parts of the country. As is the global trend, rural communities face greater challenges than their urban counterparts. The country’s uneven terrain makes farming and water-gathering difficult, and access to vital services is limited. On top of these challenges, rural women in Timor-Leste face persistent structural restraints when it comes to realising their rights.
At the International Women’s Development Agency, with the support by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program, we work alongside local partners in Asia and the Pacific to ensure women have an equal say and power over the decisions that affect their lives. This is why we partner with Covalima Community Centre (Centro Communidade Covalima).
Located in the south-west of Timor-Leste, the Covalima Community Centre works to empower women to become leaders. The centre supports local women’s groups by providing leadership and advocacy training as well as supporting women to strengthen their skills for income-generation.
The program acts as a platform for the women of Covalima to advocate for their rights through quarterly forums and meetings with other decision-makers. This important work is made possible with support by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).
The long-term investment in this work by the Covalima Community Centre and others is showing results, with the number of women in political leadership roles increasing in rural Timor-Leste. In 2016, Timor-Leste held its ‘Suco’ or village elections, deciding who will represent their communities at the local level for the next seven years.
In an encouraging result, the country doubled the number of women Village Chiefs with 21 women elected out of 442. This was attributable to a new law stipulating that at least one woman had to stand in every village, coupled with training provided by the Covalima Community Centre and other groups, empowering more women to run in the elections.
Since then, the Covalima Community Centre has established elected women leaders’ groups to provide further leadership training including skills development in chairing meetings and speaking persuasively in public. Group members also provide peer-to-peer support, sharing the lessons they have learnt in their new roles.
Among these newly-elected leaders is Santina De Jesus. Santina is a member of a Covalima Community Centre-supported women’s group. After receiving leadership training and developing her skills and influence through her leadership of the women’s group over several years, she was elected to the role of Xefe Aldeia, a sub-village chief. She plans to run for village chief at the next election.
So far Santina has joined other women leaders in speaking up for their communities, including meeting with senior politicians to discuss the need for greater women’s leadership in Timor Leste. For me, Santina represents the countless rural women who are standing up for transformative change.
Sophie Purdue is Program Coordinator, Timor-Leste, for the International Women’s Development Agency. Sophie holds a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science from Monash University and Master of Public Health at the University of Melbourne. She has recently authored a paper, titled ‘The case for greater youth participation in monitoring and evaluation in international development’ which was presented at the Australasian Evaluation Society conference.