The extensive news coverage of the upcoming first 'Ms. Timor-Leste' pageant gives the impression that the future of the eleven-year old country depends on it. Whoever wins the new title of Ms. Timor–Leste is envisioned by the Ministry of Tourism to serve as an ambassador of goodwill to promote the country and draw-in tourists.
It is hoped, by the organisers and promoters of the pageant, that the young Ms. Timor-Leste will use the 'three Bs' of the pageant's criteria – body, beauty and behaviour – to attract visitors to the country. Everyone here has an opinion on the pageant, giving the media a field-day; from the 'confidence-building-of-young-women' stand of the First Lady, to the 'this-is-a-result-of-lazy-policy-making' comment from the Prime Minister, to the determined 'there-are-far-more-important-problems-to-be-addressed' position of women activists and their organizations.
Not surprisingly, joining the 'no' side from the pulpit is the dominant Catholic Church as it attempts to warn the 93% of the Timorese population who are Catholic against supporting the pageant.
The national women's network Rede Feto, a long-time partner of Progressio, used its 'no' stand as a vehicle to remind the state of its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). One way to fulfill this obligation is for the state to exercise due diligence in ensuring that tourism programmes and projects are non-discriminatory and are subjected to gender impact assessments.
Citing examples such as the lack of public consultation on the planned pageant, Rede Feto are recommending a functional consultative mechanism with the women's movement in Timor-Leste to provide a gender equality perspective in the tourism industry. It is also calling on the Ministry of Tourism to direct its attention to inadequate tourist facilities and the sad state of the road network leading to tourist sites – instead of aiming the spotlight on young women for the benefit of male gawkers.
Furthermore, Rede Feto are also calling for more transparency and wise spending of the government budget. The $200,000 allocated for the pageant was subsumed under a general budget line that even the gender-responsive Budgeting Working Group (of which Rede Feto is a member) missed in its scrutiny of the 2013 State Budget.
Finally, Rede Feto are making strong recommendations that the state put its time and resources into addressing the most compelling issues in the country: increasing incidence of domestic violence; a poor educational system and high drop-out rate among school age women and girls; soaring unemployment and widespread poverty especially in the rural areas where eighty percent of the population live.
An initial advocacy gain
So, what was probably planned to be simply an "entertaining" event has turned into an arena for vibrant conversations on what and where nation-building should be focused as Timor-Leste shakes off the remnants of its not-so-distant violent past.
The range of public discourse triggered by the planned pageant was interesting and included serious topics: government spending, gender non-discrimination, state of education, and discrimination on the basis of skin colour owing to candidates being ‘kulit mutin’ (fair-skinned) in a country where dark complexions are the norm.
With the 'no' from the pageant’s oppositions reverberating louder than the 'pro' lobby, the Ministry of Tourism has decided to postpone the staging of the pageant. It has since taken down the Ms. Timor billboard from the main highway and promised public consultations.
Vilma Horca works as a Progressio Development Worker with Rede Feto in Timor-Leste. Photo 1: A billboard advretising the Miss Timor-Leste pageant, photo 2: Misplaced priorities? Two teenage sisters carting home firewood on a dusty road in Liquica District, photo 3: Press conference on Rede Feto’s position on the Ms. Timor-Leste pageant, Dili.