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Reflections on gender issues in Timor Leste

It’s been a month since Christmas and New Years but as I reflect back on the holidays, it was a quiet and restful time in Dili for the most part.

Many of the Concern ex-pat staff, along with seemingly most United Nations and other NGO personnel, headed home or out of country to celebrate. Concern’s national staff took Christmas week off. A small group of us international staff took a road trip the Saturday before Christmas. Renting a four-wheel drive vehicle, we headed to Jaco Island. Jaco is a small island of white-sand beaches, crystalline water and healthy coral gardens off the easternmost tip of Timor Leste. We camped out at the Concern team house in Los Palos.  Driving there we cut through Timor Leste’s new national park. A lush swath of mostly pristine land, it’s vegetated with banana, bamboo, palm and coconut trees, to name just a few of the many varieties.

The first day in Jaco, we spent several hours snorkeling, swimming and searching for shells and red coral on the beach. When rain and lightning threatened, we headed back to our lunch of fresh fish, fried noodles, vegetables and rice. The next day we headed to Com Beach Resort for some more beach exploration and lunch at an open-air restaurant on the water. Torrential rain began to pound the ocean as waves crashed near our table.

Over lunch we discussed with some UN police whether to return to Los Palos, spending the night there or risk getting stopped by flooding on the way back to Dili. From previous experience, I have learned how quickly parched land here can turn into raging flood channels in no time. We decided to take our chances and head back to Dili, a five-hour journey. It rained sporadically along the way but we beat the floods.

Gender awareness training

A few days later, Bubu Shaha, Concern’s  Organisational Manager in Timor Leste, and I prepared to give a gender awareness training to Concern staff in Dili and Los Palos over the following days. Planning to cover many of the basics about why gender discrimination exists, we also covered how it manifests. We also planned how to combat behaviours and practices that perpetuate gender inequality, including sessions on gender violence. My master’s degree dissertation focused on gender justice in post-conflict societies.

Situation in Timor Leste

From what I understand about the situation in Timor, gender-based violence is extremely prevalent, but there are many barriers for victims seeking to access justice. When victims seek relief for their injuries, compensation is often delivered according to customs based on traditional justice. The offering of a water buffalo, goat or some other livestock to a victim’s family is not uncommon.

Part of the process of nation-building in Timor is to strengthen the judicial system and people’s access to legal remedies. This way, the country can fulfill its commitments under the constitution and international law to eradicating all forms of discrimination and inequality. There’s much work to be done, especially when it comes to improving women’s status in this young democracy.