Supporting women at the heart of Asia’s newest democracy
Dili – Josefa Soares tiptoes in high heels over the few square meters of grass outside Timor-Leste’s parliament building. (Lee versaun Tetum iha ne'e)
Posing for a photograph, next to a row of flags at the entrance, she looks every part the politician. But Mrs Soares is a long way from her previous life as a school teacher and it was not an easy journey to the country’s newly created corridors of power.
Timor-Leste moved towards restoring independence after a referendum in 1999 that triggered widespread destruction and violence as Indonesian forces withdrew. Over 150,000 Timorese died during the struggle for independence and the country was forced to slowly rebuild the most basic of services and infrastructures, including parliament.
“I only had a very basic education and had spent thirty years as a primary school teacher,” says Mrs Soares, over the sound of a backup electricity generator chugging into action in the parliamentary compound.
- Timor-Leste has 25 women in the Parliament, 38 per cent representation. This is the highest number of women parliamentarians in the Asia-Pacific region.
- The National Parliament’s Gender Resource Centre (CEGEN) helped ensure that gender equality was reflected in the civil code and labour law. State budgets are also being analyzed from a gender perspective.
“I was inspired by the struggle for independence and so decided to become a member of my party and join the voice of men, give them my voice and be an active citizen.”
In 2001, Mrs Soares was elected to the Constituent Assembly, when then became the first National Parliament in 2002.
With no prior experience in parliamentary affairs, Mrs Soares and her fellow parliamentarians found their work challenging.
“Discussing laws and regulations was so difficult because I didn’t understand” she says “but I didn’t want to give up, I wanted to learn from other people.”
UNDP has been supporting the Parliament since 2003, but it was Parliamentarians such as Mrs Soares in mind that UNDP and UN Women helped set up a Gender Resource Centre (CEGEN) in mid-2008.
“It’s a big challenge to get male members of parliament to accept women’s views,” Mrs Soares says.
“But with support from the CEGEN, we have had significant achievements including the law against domestic violence, also a resolution that obliges each ministry to budget for gender issues,” she says.
“Another major achievement was the amendment to the Electoral Law increasing women’s representation in parliament.”
Before the 2012 elections, the Women Parliamentarians’ Group proposed to change the Electoral Law and introduce a required quota of one female in every three elected parliamentarians.
After only ten years of independence Timor-Leste achieved a 38 per cent representation for women in National Parliament, the highest in the region.
The peaceful elections also marked a significant milestone for a country troubled by violence in the past and paved the way for the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers.
“The increasing representation of women in the National Parliament is a positive indicator of a vibrant democratic environment that values the contribution of both women and men in political affairs,” said Mikiko Tanaka, UNDP Country Director.
“UNDP has been a proud partner to the strengthening of the National Parliament and will continue its support to ensure that the increasing numbers of female MPs, together with their male counterparts, empower women and promote gender equality across all parts of society.”
As president of the Women’s Parliamentarian Group, Mrs Soares will spend many more years working towards gender equality.
“We have had some great successes, but there is still a lot to do for women,” she says, as the backup generator stops, revealing the sound of busy offices and corridor conversations across the parliamentary compound.
“Together we will work hard towards equality in the future and ensure that the voices from remote districts are heard.”
Donors who support the National Parliament include Australia, Sida, Norway, Italy, the European Union and Finland. Japan and Irish Aid have also assisted with elections.