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Women's Involvement in Timor-Leste's Presidential Elections
By Manuela Leong Pereira and Jill Sternberg

Timor-Leste (the official name for East Timor) successfully held its second presidential election this year. Unlike the first Presidential Election, where the choice was between two male leaders of the independence struggle, eight candidates stood for election. More significant, Lucia Lobato was the one woman candidate.

Women have consistently been engaged in political processes in Timor-Leste; they were an integral part of the struggle for self-determination, including the resistance to 24 years of Indonesian occupation. In 2001, several women unsuccessfully stood as independent candidates for the Constituent Assembly (the body elected to write the constitution). However, a women's coalition did campaign and obtained gender equality in the constitution. The constitutional language regarding the presidency is gender neutral and election laws for the office are gender sensitive.

Fretilin is the governing party. Recognized as leaders of the country's independence struggle, they won an absolute majority in the 2001 Constituent Assembly election. That body became the country's first parliament, in accordance with the election regulation. 27.6% of the Members of Parliament are women. Under Fretilin's leadership, 20% of the ministers and administrators are women. 24.3% of civil servants are women and 27.6% of the village councilors are women (each council contains two women's representatives and a female youth representative).

According to Timor-Leste's election law, if no candidate wins 50% of the vote in the first round, a run-off election is necessary. In the first round of the Presidential Election on April 9, eight candidates were contesting. Five out of the six backed Ramos-Horta for the run-off, including Lucia Labato. Only one candidate endorsed Lu-Olo, Fretilin's Presidential candidate.

On 20 May 2007, Jose Ramos-Horta was installed as country's second president. He won the run-off election on 9 May. Women were disappointed that he failed to mention women once in his acceptance speech. Although he made reference to the poor, he did not specifically refer to women. We were also disappointed that only men were present on the dais at his swearing in ceremony. Ramos-Horta won just over 69% of the vote, compared to 30.8% for Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo. 47.69% of the voters were women, significant evidence of women's commitment and participation in the democratic process. Women make up 49.4% of the population.

Though the elections were conducted in a relatively peaceful atmosphere, the results from both rounds demonstrate a polarization between the east and the west of the country. Fretilin remains very strong in the eastern districts with opposition candidates winning the rest. Some of the candidates addressed women and women's concerns during the first round election campaigns but women's issues were missing during the campaigning for the run-off election, which were dominated by accusations of vote buying, threats and intimidation against the opposing candidate. The candidates failed to condemn violence by party militants; rather they pointed fingers and blamed the other side for incidents that occurred. Thankfully, in their post-election speeches the two candidates did call for peace and acceptance of the results.

Patriarchy is strong in Timor-Leste, political parties and campaign events are dominated by men. In a significant and positive change between the two rounds, the National Election Commission required tallying gender of voters.

The parliamentary election, set for June 30, has a quota of 25% women on party slates and one out of every four candidates must be a woman. Parties that failed to fulfill this criterion were informed that they must revise their candidate lists. Unfortunately most parties listed women in the fourth position, lessening the chances of these candidates. The requirement however does sensitize the parties to the need for women's involvement and requires them to comply.

Lucia Lobato, Timor-Leste's First Women Presidential Candidate

Lucia Lobato entered the campaign for President to demonstrate that the challenges of political life are not only for men. She is committed to one struggle, for women to obtain key positions with decision making power in order to improve women's lives. Despite coming in fifth out of eight candidates (8.86% of the vote), she continues her political career, and will stand in the parliamentary elections for the Social Democratic Party. She continues to inspire and motivate women to enter politics, despite a culture that makes it very difficult for women to challenge themselves and contribute to the new nation's development.

Ms. Lobato is disappointed by the lack of support by women for her candidacy. It will take greater unity for women to advance, and a clearer platform some say. She is in agreement with all women's groups in working to empower women to vote their conscience, not their husband's wishes or traditional party allegiance. She is also worried that the overall number of women in the Parliament will drop in the new political landscape with many small parties contesting 65 seats. Her solution is for greater women's participation in political parties and for women to support only those parties with a large percentage of women on the party slate.

Office for the Promotion of Equality (OPE)

Aurora Ximenes is the advisor for Prime Minister (PM) on gender issues.

Unfortunately, the position of advisor leaves participation in the Council of Ministers in the hands of the PM, and she is often not invited to participate in its deliberations. This has led to difficulties in passing key legislation, such as a thorough law on domestic violence.

The advisor sees her primary role as promoting women's participation, in cooperation with civil society and other partners such as UNIFEM. They provide training and help women prepare for political life. Another focus is consciousness raising on gender equality as an avenue for national development and peace. Ms. Ximenes knows there are many capable women, and recognizes the need to work together to make gender equality a priority for all.

National Electoral Commission (CNE)

CNE is an independent supervisory body to oversee all phases of the electoral process and ensure enforcement of constitutional and legal provisions, including equal treatment for all. Timor-Leste's law establishing the electoral administrative bodies requires four of the fifteen National Election Commissioners are women. In fact there are five female commissioners, and seven of the twelve alternate members are women. These women see stimulating women's participation as one of their roles, thus they pushed for gender segregated data as part of the election process. Through this process, voters, candidates and parties know the impact women have on the election results.

Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE)

STAE is under the Ministry of State Administration, and responsible to organize the election including: voter registration, voter education, develop and disseminate procedures, rules and regulations governing the elections (with CNE approval), ballot design and production, observer, media, party and candidate accreditation, set up polling stations, recruit, hire and train polling staff, and all aspects of running the actual election.

STAE has a male director and deputy. 30% of the 3481 polling staff are women, though only 17% of the 'brigade' or Polling Centre's Supervisors is a woman. They supervise 504 polling centers with a total of 705 polling stations in 13 districts, some only accessible by foot. STAE's deputy director, Edgar Sequeira Martins explained that they do not have gender quotas for hiring, but recruit according to the capacity of the applicants. According to Fokupers (Timor-Leste's largest and oldest women's organization), STAE's first training for polling staff was in Dili, putting a greater burden on female staff. It is more difficult for women to travel because of household responsibilities. They recommend all future polling staff training is in the districts.

When asked about possible pro-active roles STAE could take in relation to gender and the elections, Mr. Martins emphasized their role as one of implementing election regulations. In reality both CNE and STAE write election regulations.

Women in Civil Society

Women civil society groups are focused on increasing women's participation in politics and decision making. In general women are not part of party structures, and most often relegated to the women's wing of the party. Women candidates and governmental officials receive support from a number of women's entities, Rede Feto (umbrella for women's organizations), The Office for the Promotion of Equality and UNIFEM are the most active in providing training and information.

Women turn out to vote in large numbers despite age, education or health, whether pregnant or carrying new born babies; they often leave home at dawn to walk long distances to polling centers. They vote regardless of voter education or civic education. They want to participate in elections and value their vote. Women's groups focus on providing information to women voter so that they can choose representatives that will address their needs and interests.

The 2001-2002 campaign 'Listen to Women's Voices' is an example of successful women's organizing. Most women's groups in the country coalesced to present a unified list of women's demands for the constitution, including gender equality in politics, government and elections. Unfortunately, last year's crisis derailed most women's groups' plans surrounding this year's elections.

In April 2006, grievances in the military led to open conflict between the police and military. In the ensuing turmoil tens of thousands fled their homes in fear amidst gang violence, the government called for foreign forces to assist in maintaining law and order, and the prime minister was forced to resign. A year later, more than 30,000 people remain in camps for the displaced and an equal number is living with relatives outside Dili, the capital city. Differences heightened between the people in the eastern and western parts of the country, a polarization reflected in the Presidential Election results.

Civil society, including women's groups abandoned their planned activities to engage in humanitarian work and support for the displaced. They have found it difficult to focus on the elections in this climate. They have been unable to come together to prioritize women's concerns and advance a women's agenda for the elections. Unfortunately, women have not issued a unified call to end the violence, despite each group condemning it and the resulting suffering.

Rede Feto

Rede Feto is an umbrella for 18 organizations, each with their own target group. Their membership includes NGO members, religious organizations and women's wings of political parties. They have three program areas: advocacy, capacity building, and information and communication. Rede Feto's election priorities are to get information to the grassroots so women can vote according to their conscience. They hope to create an educated electorate that will also criticize within their own party, not just defend it. They try to get information to the villages so people don't just follow party interests. Unfortunately, the civic and voter education campaigns have not been strong.

They focus on future members of parliament and women in government, providing information and training on human rights and gender. They hope that by working together, women will be empowered to advance policy and procedures to increase women's participation within their parties. The political parties claim to be democratic, but there are no women in decision making positions. For example, most parties put women last on their parliamentary slate among the 25% required. Rede Feto wants the women to be ready to take their posts when they are elected or appointed. They facilitate and capacitate based on the needs of the women (gender, laws, public speaking, writing, human rights, leadership, etc.)

In their advocacy, Rede Feto targets the political parties, also aimed at increasing women's involvement. They use all means available to disseminate their message--community radio, television and print media. They have a post card campaign using five local languages appealing to women to vote intelligently, to make a difference, to scrutinize the candidates' platforms based on their commitment to the interests and needs of women and children, and then to hold them accountable.

Rede observed the election with KOMEG, and did civic education with NGO Forum. They feel a longer term perspective and approach is needed; this work cannot be done on a project basis. It is necessary to help people change their thinking about elections and leadership. Even though Rede Feto provides a lot of information to women, there has not yet been a change in mentality. NGOs often involve women at the grassroots and share info; they are good at it but they do not cover all districts. Political congresses have lots of members from the grassroots, but they don't really involve women at that level.

For the parliamentary election, Rede Feto is monitoring the media with UNIFEM for women's programs and issues in party platforms. In June they will have a workshop for media, to bring women's issues and perspectives to the media.

For the next three years Rede will continue to focus on advocacy for gender equality and women's rights, capacity building, the women's assembly and empowerment, and information and communication. Their advocacy will focus on how gender is included in each area of law and implemented by each ministry, including budgeting.

Fokupers (Women's Communication Forum)

FOKUPERS' mission is to uphold human rights principles in Timor-Leste and to strengthen women's position in society. Its aims are the promotion of women's rights, to reduce gender discrimination and gender injustice and to stop gender-based violence, with a particular focus on assistance to victims of gender-based violence, domestic violence and sexual assault. FOKUPERS also engages in advocacy activities on behalf of women, who have been violated or assaulted, neglected or discriminated against.

In relation to the election, Fokupers works for equal opportunities for women and stresses the importance of women's votes as a means to influence politics for more focus on women. Fokupers provides training for women to increase their understanding of and capacity in politics and development, organizes discussions on the elections and governmental programs, and distributes information to enhance women's participation in development, social and political life. They find that concrete action is needed to engage women, so Fokupers emphasizes women's participation in key functions to defend women's rights at the grassroots up to the national level. The big challenge is to change the patriarchal mentality so that communities themselves will support women's political participation, especially women in decision making positions.

In 2006, Fokupers worked with UNIFEM to organize workshops and discussion forums to broadly consult on and deepen concepts relating to affirmative action. They are advocating gender balance in party lists for the parliamentary election, and documenting the campaigns and party programs for gender equality and women's empowerment.

Timor-Leste NGO Forum

The NGO Forum is an umbrella for all NGOs in Timor-Leste. They focus on civic and voter education, mainly through working groups made up of representatives of member organizations. Civic education is a two year initiative led by a network in each of the 13 districts, including one representative of the Women's Network (Rede Feto).

Women are also very involved in voter education. They conduct door-to-door campaigns targeting women who due to heavy domestic responsibilities don't get out. They try to reach these women to encourage them to vote according to their conscience. Women's participation is essential to reach these homebound women.

KOMEG (General Election Monitoring Commission)

KOMEG is a coalition of thirteen national and local NGOs launched earlier this year to monitor the elections. It includes women's and religious groups, and other NGOs. They developed a national pact to guide election monitoring, and they successfully implemented gender balance among their observers. Each district has a male and a female coordinator, responsible for recruiting equal numbers of men and women to observe at every polling station. Their success demonstrates what a well resourced and established institution can achieve if they are determined to promote gender equality.

Two KOMEG observers commented that women are involved, from a quantitative analysis they are there, but one needs also to evaluate the quality. Information is not reaching the women, for example, some thought they could vote for two candidates. Men go out, talk and develop relationships, thus even if they are illiterate they know the rules. Women do not have the same access to information as traditionally they stay at home. Some are still not sure how to vote and depend on their husbands. Some said they vote the way their husbands vote to avoid a fissure in the family.

In our interview, Father Agustinho, KOMEG's spokesperson, emphasized Church Doctrine that gives equal opportunity to everyone. He talked about the patriarchal system entrenched in Timor-Leste, and the necessity of male leaders to realize women's capacity. He also commented on the challenges within families when members vote for different parties or candidates.

United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

UNIFEM plays a facilitating role in Timor-Leste, working with women's organizations, supporting women's participation, and working with women's wings of political parties and supporting training for women candidates. Their aim is to make government gender responsive.

UNIFEM has an integrated program on women in politics and decision making, but their focus is the parliamentary election. When they were challenged to address the Presidential Election, UNIFEM cosponsored a debate among the presidential candidates with TVTL (Timor-Leste's only television station). They prepared material for the candidates, circulated a concept paper and questions, and had much discussion with the candidates. Their theme, ending violence against women, was lost and the event turned into an open debate on issues of national interest. Unfortunately most of the candidates only superficially addresses violence against women, and those who spoke against it did not say what they would do. No candidate laid out a clear program. UNIFEM wanted the candidates to understand the issues, the root cause, and also problems with impunity and justice. They felt none of the presidential candidates internalize the issue.

In March, UNIFEM held a consultation with political parties that had an impact, for some it was important just to emphasize the number of women registered to vote. At that time one political party had no women members, but has since formed a women's organization. Their campaign materials focus on women's participation and encourage women to vote in accordance with parties that promote women's participation and equality for women. They are exploring other discussion forums, and will organize a film night in each district. They will show a new film locally produced on women's participation (involvement and support for women candidates, women's rights and empowerment), a film on women's health and ads on breast feeding.

United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT)

UNMIT's mandate is to provide security and technical assistance for the elections. They see their role as advising and supporting the Timorese authorities. They have 20 technical advisors, nearly 200 UN Volunteers and 175 national staff working on election support.

The post of Gender Advisor to the mission is currently vacant; however the Electoral Gender Advisor has been active in assessing and reporting on the elections and the UN mission in relation to the elections. As in many UN missions, the office appears under-resourced and responsibility for all gender related analysis and activity left to its initiative. Juliette Chinaud has offered workshops and information to the UN, UNDP, the government bodies involved in the elections, national and international election observers and women's entities focused on the election. She has generally raised the consciousness and importance of viewing the elections through a gender lens.


Timorese women face many obstacles in their struggle for equality. Although some have broken the traditional barrier that keeps women in the home, many of these women lack confidence that they have the experience necessary to lead. They have the support of their sisters who have paved the way for them, and the structures they struggled for and built, such as the Office for the Promotion of Equality and quotas for parliament.

Women are challenged to sustain their action, and have not continued to pursue a women's agenda throughout the years since the last election. Women's groups didn't do enough and women didn't see others doing it as a motivation to act. For example, Lucia Labato raised women's issues in her campaign, but in the run-off when she spoke at Ramos-Horta's campaign events she didn't talk about gender. As several individuals commented, changing people's thinking takes a long time, and sustained action.

Timorese women need to learn from our liberation struggle; it was through unity that we won our nation's independence. Only by working together for our common aim of women's and human rights and gender equality will we succeed for all Timorese women.

The authors would like to thank the following people for their time: Father Agustinho, Marilia Alves, Ubalda Alves, Juliette Chinaud, Maria Dias, Maria Domingas Fernandes, Lucia Lobato, Jacinta Lujina, Edgar Sequeira Martins, Ines Martins, Milena Pires, Angelina Sarmento and Aurora Ximenes.

Manuela Leong Pereira is the Women's Representative on Timor-Leste's National Election Commission and the former director of Fokupers.

Jill Sternberg is the Coordinator of the Solidarity Observer Mission for East Timor (SOMET) and former Director of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom's United Nations Office.