Vilma, from the Philippines, works as a Gender Advocacy Adviser, alongside Rede Feto (a network of women’s organisations), in Timor-Leste.

What is your work background?

I have always considered myself as a development worker in practice and at heart. Working with marginalised communities back home in the Philippines shaped my perceptions of poverty, development approaches that facilitate community empowerment and how ultimately change happens when it is the community that wants it.I was so inspired by contributing my share towards development that I dreamed of establishing my own NGO. It took me eight years before I was able to turn this dream into reality. I established the Center for Partnership Initiatives for Development (CPID) and was able to contribute towards gender equality and poverty alleviation in my home province. I then left the Philippines to take a Master’s degree in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University in the US, as a Ford Fellow. Upon completion, I came back to the Philippines and managed the Mindanao office of the Development Academy of the Philippines, a government-owned corporation. Two years into the job, I started to feel restless. The development worker in me was looking for more active involvement once again with civil society. And that’s when Progressio came into the picture.

What inspired you to become a Development Worker with Progressio?

The opportunity to work directly, once again, with local people and the vulnerable sector, but in a different context and culture. I have worked both with the duty-bearers (the State) and the rights-holders. I think I have done some really good work with the former, but I would say I am happiest and feel I am making the most of my life when I work with the rights-holder. And that is what Progressio has provided me. Progressio’s belief in community empowerment resonates with what I believe in.

Above all, working for gender equality and women’s rights is my primary advocacy, both at the professional and personal levels. I am morally-bound to serve the women’s sector. A few years back in the Philippines, I attended to a rape case of a six-year-old girl. She was raped in the river by a friend of her family. She gave her testimony to the police and I was there. I could not forget what she said for it haunts me still. She said, “I shouted and shouted for help but nobody heard me”. When I am in doubt of where I am going in my career and what am I doing with my life, I remind myself of that statement – am I heeding that call? Indeed, I am, with this placement with Rede Feto at Progressio. This is the kind of work that makes life worthwhile for me.

What made the biggest impact on you when you arrived in Timor-Leste?

What struck me most arriving in this very small country is that almost everyone is here – the World Bank, United Nations, Asian Development Bank and international NGOs. They are there at almost every turn, every corner. Then some started pulling out a few weeks after I arrived. So, I said, have development objectives been achieved 11 years out of conflict with the new-found middle high income status of the country? Three weeks later, I travelled to the sub-district of Soebada, up in the mountains on nightmarish roads, and saw a disconnect in the lives of rural people. Timor-Leste still has a long way to go.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

Timor-Leste is still in the process of nation-building – of putting in place laws, systems and mechanisms. What makes my placement enjoyable is building the capacity of Rede Feto in its advocacy work. I feel a sense of fulfillment when the women leaders I am working with confidently articulate their development agenda in national fora, in the presence of the President, the Prime Minister and international development partners. And they really can be highly convincing!

What has been the most exciting moment so far?

The 4th National Women’s Congress – a once-every-four year activity that Rede Feto has organised ever since the country gained its independence in 2002. I felt privileged to have witnessed and been part of it. The Congress gathered women representatives from the 13 districts of the country from various walks of life and sectors: farming, health, education, and politics, among others. Priority issues that impact on women and their families and communities were discussed and solutions identified. A very important document was produced – the Platform of Action – that serves as an advocacy tool for Rede Feto for the next four years, using it to influence and convince the government and development partners to integrate the identified priority issues and recommendations in their plans and budgets. I was awed by how the women passionately discussed and debated matters that are closest to their hearts, to their daily lives.

And the biggest lesson?

Development work is a constant learning process. You build on what experience and academic background you have and add more to it as you go along. As a Development Worker, we carry our bags of development tools with us. However, it is important to know that there is no such thing as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of development trick. Constantly we contextualise, we learn the culture, we learn from the people, we innovate.

What is the biggest development challenge facing the Timor-Leste?

Gender-based violence is a tough problem that Timor-Leste has yet to shake-off, together with its violent past. It is enmeshed inextricably with the patriarchal culture and by the traditional justice system that still exerts a strong influence in communities, especially in the rural areas, even at this time when formal justice mechanisms are in place. This is a major development challenge that Rede Feto and gender equality advocates, both women and men, have to face head-on, with unwavering determination and unified strength.

What strikes you most about Progressio’s Development Worker model?

The Development Worker model is focused on a clear objective; capacity-building of local partners, ultimately aimed at empowerment, driven by the people themselves. That is a usual development buzzword, isn’t it? I don’t want to sound patronising, but working with Progressio, I would say, is genuine development work. You are immersed with the local people, painstakingly building capacities, finding ways for their voices to be heard – there are no shortcuts here. When I leave Timor-Leste, I would be happy to go knowing that I have been able to contribute to building capacities that will last beyond my placement.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of becoming a Development Worker?

I would say one cannot go wrong when one possesses humility, patience and commitment. And, of course, Progressio is well-known for fielding highly qualified Development Workers, so that too is something one must have. It is also very helpful to stay ahead of the game – study more, read more, and be highly observant. Be prepared to be surprised, as I was, e.g. of the multi-layered dynamics between and among women that I never thought existed when I started this role. Be pleasantly surprised but never be knocked down. To be a Progressio Development Worker, you will have to be made of some tough stuff.

Where do you see yourself once your placement has ended? And in what ways is this placement with Progressio assisting you to get there?

If I was asked this question a few months back, I would have responded that I am charting my career path in international development, meaning, if possible, work in another country. But then Typhoon Haiyan struck my province, Leyte, in the Philippines, and wrought unimaginable devastation. I feel I am morally obligated to go back home and devote my talents for some more time to the service of my country, my people. My planned homecoming, in the next few months, worries my little nephew to no end. “Where is Auntie Vil going to sleep, now that her bedroom is roofless?” he asks. “Oh, but wouldn’t that be great for stargazing, eh?” I say. I am a Filipino – finding humor in the midst of crisis runs in my blood. And that also helped me as a Development Worker.

In the long-term, in the near future, I see myself working still with the vulnerable sector, hopefully on children’s rights, especially girl children. Advocacy work is a very interesting field and I am glad Progressio trusted me in this and in ways helped me expand my career choice. Advocacy work for children’s rights, maybe? Also, I am grateful that Progressio has provided me with the opportunity to work outside the Philippines and I strongly believe that this door will remain open to me in the coming years, after my work at home.