Progressio's media officer Lucy Jenkinson writes:
A week before my arrival in Timor Leste, Ban-ki Moon and Gordon Brown were here to formally announce the withdrawal of the UN from this millennium's first new country - more than 10 years after the UN arrived in the wake of the Indonesian army's reluctant retreat following a bloody war of independence.
This was a war that all the Timorese people I've spoken to never doubted they would eventually win. But victory came at a cost and Timor-Leste will be paying that price for more than a generation to come. People are very open and honest about this, as I have found travelling around the districts bordering the capital city of Dili this past week.
In the village of Estada in the district of Ermera, we met with the village council who told us about the support the Progressio Development Worker (DW) David has given them in learning to save and allocate money for their children's school uniforms and to help ill or widowed villagers from any income they generate. In Estada both men and women sit on the village council and the women have their own group, sewing bags, pencil cases and traditional 'tais' which they sell at market. The council comes together to write and submit proposals to the next level of local governance but the women admitted that the men have not been helpful in filling out proposals for their particular needs, namely another sewing machine. "My parents did not value eduction so I stayed at home and worked the land," says Fernanda who has lived in Estada all her life, "but now I realise the importance of my children going to school and hope they will have more opportunities than me."
We heard from another similar women's groups in the nearby town where the women we spoke with told us that their group had given them a new found confidence and independence. Paulina shared with us that, "Now I am bringing in money on my own my husband listens to my opinion more and my parents are proud of me - although my mother still reminds me to take good care of my house and family first." These experiences seem typical of those we spoke with, empowering women to exercise their rights as equals to the men in their lives.
A couple of days later we headed off to Baucau - a 3 hour journey from Dili on some very interesting roads and listening to a tape of equally interesting Indonesian pop songs! In Baucau we were warmly welcomed by Victor the Progressio DW based there and had dinner with representatives from several partner organisations, all keen to share their successes. This included Domingas Tillman, a 48 year old mother of six, who runs a safe house for victims of domestic violence. Domingas set up the safe house in 2006 but in 2010 had to find larger premises to be able to accommodate the growing number of women coming to her. There is now a law prohibiting domestic violence thanks lately to the brilliant work done by one of Progressio's partner organisations here, 'Redo Feto' the women's network. Domingas says the law is "important but difficult to enforce." Many of the women who arrive at the safe house are successfully integrated back into their communities with the help of Domingas and her volunteers. The success of this programme has helped women in the area to feel they can speak out about the abuse they are suffering at home.
On Friday we were able to accompany Dr Ida who works out of Bairo Pite clinic in Dili. She runs a mobile health clinic which visits different villages on a monthly basis, offering ante and post-natal check ups and care, vaccinations for babies and general medical advice and supplies. Dr Ida trained in Indonesia before getting a scholarship to study in America. "I was very lucky," she says of her opportunity to study abroad. "Having lived elsewhere I get very frustrated with how things are done in Timor-Leste, but it is my country and I love it."
These women all demonstrate the fighting spirit of the Timorese. They have managed to overcome social and political obstacles with few resources in order to make an amazing difference to the lives of many other women. Strong, independent, ambitious women like these should be the role models for young girls growing up in Timor-Leste today.
Lucy Jenkinson was visiting Timor-Leste to accompany Charlotte Maugham, a finalist in the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition. Charlotte will be writing about the role of women in Timor-Leste in an article to be published in the Guardian newspaper in November.
Photo: Luciana Pereira, 32, from Estada in Ermera.