TIMOR-LESTE: NGO Takes on Women's Rights

Friday, September 26, 2008
South Eastern Asia
East Timor
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

As a girl, Laura Pina was not expected to slave in the kitchen simply by virtue of her gender. Then she got married.

Pina was shocked when she went to visit her in-laws for the first time. "They thought women had to serve the husband's family," she said. "They thought I had to stay and cook in the kitchen for all the ceremonies. They expected me to stay in the kitchen all day and then eat last because that was their custom - even if we sometimes ate in the middle of the night."

Pina could not agree to such traditional behaviour. Her parents were teachers and they had always encouraged her to get an education and be independent. When she saw how Timorese women were treated as second-class citizens, she decided to do something about it. She started by arguing with her mother-in-law.

In 2001, she helped found the Women's Caucus, an NGO that addresses women's issues. The following year Timor ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This United Nations-led treaty guarantees the rights of women and girls worldwide.

But a signature did not change the reality for the half-million women in Timor. As part of the convention, signatory governments must send periodic progress reports to the CEDAW Committee. Timor-Leste finally submitted its first report in March this year.

The CEDAW Committee encourages local NGOs to draft a shadow report with their own analysis to get a clearer picture. Local women's rights umbrella NGO Rede Feto (The Women's Network) asked Pina to coordinate the effort.

After reading the government report, Pina realised it failed to address a number of issues. "[The government report] didn't say much regarding the reality of women in Timor-Leste and also it just gives some very basic information and misses a lot of important things," Pina said.

Pina has been working with dozens of local NGOs to gather data from across the nation for a definitive report on the lives of women in the country.

In addition to a lifetime of manual labour, many women in Timor have limited access to healthcare, drinking water, justice and influence in community politics. Many women want an end to ingrained cultural practices such as the bride-price and polygamy, which is still occasionally practised. The shadow report will tackle all these issues.

Pina knows there is a great deal at stake. In addition to the CEDAW Committee, the shadow report will be presented to the government. She hopes it will convince policy-makers that life has to change - soon. "We want the shadow report to help the Timor-Leste government to really understand what problems the women of Timor face," Pina said. "The government here can create concrete measures which can help the women of Timor-Leste overcome some of these problems."

But Pina understands real solutions take time. Her mother-in-law is still no fan of women's rights, but at least respects her and no longer argues with her. That one tiny, personal change has taken more than a decade.

Pina's youngest child is two. She reckons it will be his generation that has a chance at equality and the government should focus on him. Asked when she thought women might live as equals in Timor, she said that day might come when he, and young girls his age, share fully in the knowledge and other benefits of a university education.