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Finding the Formula for Gender Equality and Inclusive Governance in Timor-Leste

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Timor-Leste turns 13 this year. The young nation’s independence was restored in 2002 after years of occupation and colonial rule and, with such recent change, many Timorese don’t have a clear understanding about how their government and justice systems work.

Enter Counterpart’s Ba Distrito project, which is educating government leaders about their roles and responsibilities and reaching out to some of Timor-Leste’s most vulnerable populations to teach them about their legal rights.

The project is committed to ensuring inclusive governance, and part of that process is designing an approach that considers gender equality from the outset. While a deliberate, gendered approach is standard for all Counterpart projects, integrating gender equality into the goals of the overall project has generated support from both local and international partners.

“The Ba Distrito project should be held up as an example of best practices for bottom-up implementation,” said Sharon Rogers, Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Advisor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“The project’s method of working shows that we have considered barriers that often prevent the meaningful participation of women and other marginalized groups in local governance and justice. Its activities show thoughtful and careful consideration of how to best address these barriers and make the process more inclusive and meaningful,” added Rogers.

Before designing its activities, the Ba Distrito project first turned to the Timorese people to hear their perspectives. It began by conducting a survey in three target municipalities: Baucau, Covalima and Oecusse-Ambeno. The survey measured citizens’ knowledge, satisfaction, and confidence about local government, including formal and traditional justice systems. The project also assessed the organizational management capacity of local councils in 100 sucos (or villages).

According to survey findings, Timorese women are less satisfied than men with community-level systems for dispute resolution, especially the rulings made at local Dispute Resolution Forums. This disparity is perhaps reflective of gender-bias in traditional culture.

In response, Ba Distrito began conducting trainings on women’s rights and access to justice, with an emphasis on legal issues most frequently affecting women, such as domestic violence, inheritance, rights to property and spousal support. The trainings target village-level decision-makers (village chiefs, traditional leaders and female councilors), educating them about the ways in which the Constitution calls for equal rights. Trainings also offer guidance on when and how local leaders should refer disputes to the formal justice system.

In addition, Ba Distrito used information gathered from the survey and assessments to develop a series of trainings that help council members strengthen their ability to respond to constituents, represent constituents’ needs, and mediate legal issues at the grassroots level. The trainings equip village council leaders with the skills and knowledge to help them run their councils in a more streamlined, consultative manner.

So far, three training modules have been developed and implemented with seven more underway. Trainings were all developed from a gender-inclusive perspective and tailored to local context. In this way, the project has been mindful to build upon those laws already in place in Timor-Leste that encourage gender inclusion, such as the mandatory representation of women – including young women – in elected local councils.

The project is also broadcasting a drama series on local radio covering similar themes involving women and the justice system. The show was developed to reinforce the project’s efforts to train local leaders about women’s rights and to provide legal outreach to those in need. It is also being aired in Baekeno, the language of the Oecusse region.

Ba Distrito is a four-year project funded by USAID. Click here to learn more or visit its Facebook page.