Timor-Leste’s vibrant young democracy has adopted some of the world’s most progressive quotas for women in government. The move has been resisted and criticized by many, for a range of reasons. But the women say the quotas are opening up new avenues for them in politics.
Nelia Soares Menezes and Nurima Ribeiro Alkatiri are both members of Timor Leste’s opposition FRETILIN party (Frente Revolucionária do Timor-Leste Independente, or “Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor”). The party, which led the country in the years following independence in 2001, is a member of the FES-supported Network for Social Democracy in Asia (SocDem Asia)—a group of sister political parties, pre-party formations, progressive politicians, scholars and activists in the region who share social democratic values and perspectives.
Menezes was elected to the parliament for the first time in May 2018. Alkatiri, daughter of FRETILIN secretary-general and former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, became an MP in 2017 but decided not to run when fresh elections were called in May. FES discussed the state of women in politics with both of them.
Nurima Alkatiri: Very hard. Women who are strong and vocal are still not very well accepted by either men or women. In particular, young women who run for office get targeted and vilified disproportionately more than young men.
Nelia Menezes: Attacks on me started as soon as my candidacy was announced this summer. I’m the only female Deputy Secretary General for the Youth Wing, the Juventude FRETILIN, the other four are men, who also campaigned for parliamentary seats. And I got scrutinized more aggressively than my male comrades.
Nurima Alkatiri: While I served as MP in the last legislature, I was attacked regularly via social media. If my two brothers were in the same position, they would be less attacked. For women it is much harder. I therefore decided to not run again in this summer’s election campaign, so that I could not be used against my own party, even though I’m qualified. I have been an active member of FRETILIN in my own right my whole life.
Alkatiri: During the three decades of brutal struggle Timorese women were expected to be the back-up for the men. The Indonesian army used to come for our men, so many left to the mountains. Women stayed at home looking after children and the elderly. It was a matter of survival. And of course, this attitude lingers on, even though we have been at peace now since 2000. Men are still expected to be on the front lines, and women to stay in the background. This is an attitude held even by many women.
Alkatiri: Of course! We still fight for this. And we are proud to say that FRETILIN is the only political party in Timor-Leste who is regularly exceeding the quota. This contributes to the fact that Timor-Leste’s parliament usually has about 40 per cent female MPs in total. That is an achievement.
Menezes: Honestly, we struggle to live up to the quota requirements. But I’m a big advocate of it, too. It is a first and necessary step. Because women themselves are still openly questioning why they should do a man’s job. Our culture and traditions are demanding that women stay at home and serve their family.
Alkatiri: Our leadership, which approves the final candidate list, is very serious about exceeding the quota of women. But at the grassroots level, only 4 percent of the chief of sucos [elected local leaders] are women, and this is up from just 2 percent only very recently. So, we are still facing challenges. Many times, the districts lists come without any women included, even though our party constitution demands it.
Menezes: Yes, if we just accepted the candidates the subdistricts send us, we probably would not have a single female MP. With regards to the FRETILIN youth organization, only one district and one subdistrict are coordinated by a woman. One reason is that our youth organization was only established two years ago. Since then we have been campaigning non-stop in internal and national elections, so we simply have had no time to improve the gender balance yet. The subdistricts themselves were modelled upon the much older party structures. That is why they still do not reflect women’s participation in a more progressive way.
Alkatiri: When we set up the youth organization, there was some initial resistance to comply with the minimum 30 per cent quota of women due to the fear of hurting some sensitivities. I insisted that we need to start educating the young generation. We are a peacetime society now and need to be much more inclusive. Besides, it is a provision in our constitution, which we need to honour. That is how we managed to increase the women’s quota of FRETILIN’s Youth Congress. If you look at our Party Central Committee, we are way below 30 per cent of female representation. So, there is still work to be done.
Alkatiri: As MP and as the vice president of the Parliament’s Women Caucus, I realised that it was hard to convince fellow female MPs [from different parties] to work together. I got the support of all female FRETILIN MPs and they attended our meetings. But the only woman to participate from the main opposition party at that time, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), was the Caucus president. I think that MPs need to understand the meaning and concepts of gender equality and feminism, and that these are not a threat to anyone.
Menezes: We struggle with the access of women to higher education. We struggle with a high rate of teenage pregnancies. Many girls fall pregnant before they turn 15. International aid agencies are pressing for improvements, but our current government is only paying lip service to satisfy the international donors, without real action on the ground. For me personally, my biggest struggle right now is to be a first-time MP. There is so much to learn and to know about legal and democratic procedures. I try every day to be good and become a role model.
Alkatiri: Nelia is being very modest here. In our current party bench in Parliament we have noticed that female MPs have been more vocal than our male MPs. Nelia is also a generational role model as one of our fantastic young members.
The interview was conducted by Adrienne Woltersdorf, Resident Director at FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. For more information on the work by FES with SocDem Asia contact the FES office in the Philippines.
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