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With a new law in Timor-Leste, number of women in politics skyrockets

by Lala Soares | Plan International
Tuesday, 25 October 2016 10:00 GMT

In a file photo from 2012, a woman shows her finger marked with ink after casting her ballot in a polling station during parliamentary elections in Dili. REUTERS/Lirio Da Fonseca

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In village chief elections on Oct. 29, one district has 28 female candidates, compared to two in 2010

With Hillary Clinton in the race to be the first female president of the United States and British Prime Minister Theresa May and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel leading some of the biggest economies in the world, gender and political leadership has never been such a hot topic.

So how are women faring in elections in the developing world - where they’re often sidelined in decision making, expected to do the lion’s share of housework and treated as second-class citizens?

In Timor-Leste, women make up 38 percent of the parliament thanks to a quota system, but at the village council level, only 2 percent of village heads are women.

Despite this, Timorese girls and women have made strides in getting their voices heard in village and district councils, and 2016 could be a breakthrough year thanks to important new legislation brought about by the advocacy and lobbying of an alliance of women’s organisations.

A new election law, ratified in July, requires a female candidate to stand in every election for village chief and hamlet chief.

Almost all (98 percent) of the 442 village chiefs and 2,225 hamlet chiefs are currently men, but when votes are cast on Saturday, these new rules have the potential to give women a stronger voice and representation in local politics, helping transform the gender balance of local decision making.

Over the past 15 years, quotas for women candidates have proved a highly effective way to increase the number of women elected to parliaments in both developed and developing countries.

A 2012 amendment to Ireland’s electoral act contributed to the highest percentage of women elected to the Irish Parliament (22 percent), an increase from 15 percent at the previous general election. The act stipulated that at least 30 percent of candidates must be female, or party funding would be cut.

In Rwanda, thanks to a quota system introduced in 2003 that reserved 24 out of 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies for women, more than half the country’s parliament is now made up of women.

But quotas alone, though significant, are only part of the solution. Support and vision from men in positions of authority is also needed. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed women to half his cabinet positions, he sent a powerful signal that he believed women should have an equal say in the leadership of his country.

In Timor-Leste, Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo demonstrated his support for gender equality in politics, not only by overseeing election law changes in 2016 and leading Timor-Leste’s International Women’s Day march in 2015, but also by interrupting his schedule, on a recent visit to Aileu district, to lend his support to women candidates training for the forthcoming elections.

In addition to legal changes and support of male leaders, we need changes in the attitudes of boys and men towards girls and women.   

Plan International, supported by the Folke Bernadotte Academy of Sweden, has been working with Timorese women’s organisations Asosiasaun FADA, Foukupers, Ba Feto Timor, Fundacao Patria and Caucus since 2014, to develop women and girls’ leadership by providing training in key skills including public speaking, debating and advocacy. It also supports the “100% I’m Ready” campaign, which has been identifying potential women candidates and preparing them for local leadership positions since 2014.

As a result of this work, for the upcoming 2016 village and hamlet elections, there are 58 women candidates in Aileu district - including Joana Babo who has a small catering business and Selestra Fatima, a farmer.

So what challenges do Timor-Leste’s women face as they seek office?


Around the world, women political candidates, unlike their male counterparts, will always be questioned about children.

Timor-Leste’s female election candidates are getting used to this question. Most have families and are expected to cover the majority of childcare and domestic work. In some cases, it’s being used to suggest women aren’t up to the job of being a local leader.  


Election candidate Joana Babo’s husband is sick and unable to work, so family income is stretched, making standing for election a tough decision.  

But Joana’s experience is a strength not a weakness. She understands the challenges faced by local people, many of whom are subsistence farmers living on less than $2 a day. If elected, she’s committed to promoting assistance for vulnerable families and ensuring all children go to school.

Unexpected barriers  

One male incumbent village chief, standing for re-election, said that a female candidate should not stand for election as she can’t ride a motorbike. His argument was that she wouldn’t be able to travel around the district to deal with issues at short notice, and would be reliant on others to take her to meetings.  A reasonable concern?

In Timor-Leste, girls and women are far less likely to have been taught to ride a motorcycle than boys and men, and to own one, especially in rural areas.

The provision of motorbike training for female candidates’ post-election could resolve this. The government already provides a motorbike for every village chief, so extending this budget to cover training, or an allowance is not unrealistic.

Pressure not to stand

One candidate told me she faced pressure to stand down when members of the village council suggested reducing the number of village chief candidates from four to two. After telling them she would report this to the prime minister, they backed down and all candidates are standing.

From North America to Europe, Rwanda to Timor-Leste, achieving greater gender parity in politics requires resilience to stand up to those people who don’t want change, vision from leaders, changes to election law and practice, determination and courage.  

Change does happen. In the 2010 village chief elections, there were just two female candidates in all of Aileu district’s 31 villages. This year, there are 28.

Across Timor-Leste, there will be at least 100 women candidates this year - trained, confident and buoyed up by the support they give each other. 

Lala Soares is the manager of Plan International Timor-Leste’s programme on women and girls participation in local governance.

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