Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002 after more than 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and 25 years of Indonesian occupation. The country faces many challenges as it establishes a new government, a functioning economy and a harmonious society.
Sixteen local languages are spoken in the different regions of Timor-Leste. Tetum is the most commonly spoken language, and some people also speak Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesian. After independence, Tetum and Portuguese were declared the official languages but many young people do not speak Portuguese as they have been educated in Bahasa Indonesian. Tetum developed as an oral language but is now being formalised as a written language.
Status of women
In traditional Timorese society, men usually dominate decision-making and leadership roles in villages. Women usually look after children, maintain the household, collect the water and produce and prepare food for the family. Large families and small plots of drought-affected land mean women spend many hours providing for the basic needs of their families. Many women in rural areas have never attended school and, for those who have, it may have been only for a year or two. Many women have not been able to own land.
The Timor-Leste Government has a strong commitment to improving the rights of women. They have signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; legislated to ensure that 25% of members of parliament are women and that two seats on each suco, village-level council, are specifically for women; and enabled women to stand for any other position, including village chief. However, there continue to be challenges in providing equal rights to land, employment and investment opportunities for women, as well as increasing their participation in and access to information and new communication technologies.
Without being able to read, people are less able to participate in society and make improvements to their lives. They may not be able to read public notices, write letters, fill in a voting form or follow instructions on a medicine bottle. About half the population of Timor-Leste cannot read or write, with women having a lower literacy rate than men (43% of women are literate compared to 59% of men). Money to pay for training teachers, building schools and printing books, particularly in the many different languages, is limited. Priority is given to the education of children, so women miss out.
The Timor-Leste Young Women’s Association, Grupo Feto Foins’ae Timor Leste (GFFTL) was begun by women university student volunteers who run the Women’s Literacy for Empowerment program. They teach literacy classes twice a week in rural villages, which are sometimes only accessible by foot, using the language, stories and real-life experiences of the local women.
Learning to read and write is only the first step, says Rosa Xavier, a founder of GFFTL. ‘It is not enough that women learn basic literacy. They must also know how to use it, to make sure they are properly represented in the newly independent Timor-Leste.’
Classes incorporate education about human rights, freedom from violence and reproductive health. The program is designed to give women the power to participate in life-changing decisions both inside their homes and in the community.
For many of the women, this is an opportunity to form valuable support networks, as it is one of the few times that they can come together in a safe space away from the challenges of daily living. From developing literacy, the program has expanded to include small business training and support to enable women to earn a small income to help feed and care for their families.
The Women’s Literacy for Empowerment program has provided rural women in Timor-Leste with the confidence and ability to take a more active role in decision-making at a family and community level. The women have reported that they are now able to read letters and their children’s school reports, help children with their homework and sign their name on documents.