DILI, Jan 7 – Quotas have been helping put women in positions of power in record numbers in recent years in Timor-Leste, but assessment of what impact that has had so far has been slow in coming.
Indeed, while the local media in Timor-Leste have dutifully reported on women candidates every campaign season, there seems to be little monitoring being done on how having more women in parliament and in other political positions has been helping this country of 1.3 million people.
At the local level especially, this has rendered the more than 1,300 women holding onto reserved seats in village councils “invisible”, governance expert Deborah Cummins, also founder and director of the non-government organisation Bridging Peoples, said in a 2011 paper. Overall, this monitoring neglect has also helped support the long-held view that gender quotas in politics produce little more than token representations that have no effect on governance.
Aside from Timor-Leste, other Southeast Asian countries that have some form of legally mandated gender quotas in place for women in politics are Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. But it is Timor-Leste that has one of the highest proportions of women in parliament worldwide — and certainly the highest in the Asia-Pacific. Some 39 percent of the seats in this country’s 65-seat legislature are currently held by women, beyond what political scientist Netina Tan calls a “critical mass” of 30 percent needed to be able to influence policies and processes in parliament.
Among Southeast Asia’s 11 contries, the Philippines ranks a far second, with 30 percent, and Vietnam third (27 percent), according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Thailand is the regional laggard, with just five percent of its legislature made up of women.
In 2006, or four years after Timor-Leste became an independent country, political parties in the country began to be required to nominate one woman for every group of four in parliamentary elections. Two years earlier, in 2004, two seats had been decreed as reserved for women in suku or village councils. By 2009, the suku also had to have two youth representatives, one of whom would have to be female. In 2016, a law was passed requiring at least one woman candidate for every contested slot for xefe suku or village chief.
The results of all these was a significant increase in the presence of women in parliament and in village councils. When the polls for village chiefs were held in 2016, 21 women were elected, up from the previous 11.
The point of having women in positions of power is not just to have them look after women’s welfare. It is to improve social and human development.
One of the benefits of having more women in positions of political power is that a female population that is usually at a disadvantage in a male-dominated society would now have potential role models to emulate. Here in Timor-Leste, only 27 percent of the women are in the labour force, compared to about 56 percent of the men. Physical and sexual violence against women are also major problems in this country.
Women in politics could also mean enhanced policy debates and decision-making. UN Women has quoted Maria Natercia Gusmao Pereira, Acting Chief Judge of the Court of Appeal, as saying, “When there is not women’s participation in the society, in particular when it comes to equality between men and women, we cannot talk about development in our country.”
For all that, there does not seem to have been much coverage by the local media of just what effect having more and more women politicians has brought to Timor-Leste.
We tried asking a few people here in Dili if there was any article or news involving a female politician that they particularly remembered. All answered positively, with some like Joao Almedia of the security and defence NGO Fundacao Mahein even recalling how some articles had emphasised the women’s constitutional right to participate in governance.
The bad news is that all the articles that they cited were about candidates during elections. No one could recall any report on what an elected female politician was able to accomplish.
At least, though, Camilio Ximenes, lecturer at the Universidade Nacional Timor Loro Sa’e, even sounded wistful while recounting having read articles about Maria Angela Freitas, who had run in the recent presidential polls and lost. “If she had been elected,” said Ximenes, “she would have been a good mother for our nation and would have paid attention to the fate of women.”
There are indications that the presence of women in government has had some impact. Laura Pina, director of the women’s rights group Fundacao Patria, has observed, “In our view, the lawmakers have begun to understand their duty and obligation to integrate CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) in laws and policies.”
UN Women has noted as well that some pro-women legislative measures have been passed in recent years, among them the Law Against Domestic Violence and the National Action Plan on Gender-based Violence.
These took place after women began occupying more seats in parliament and in village councils. But the lack of discussion of the larger effects of better women’s representation in the political sphere – including in the culture, mindsets and everyday lives of all Timorese – should be worrying. After all, the point of having women in positions of power is not just to have them look after women’s welfare but to have the more equitable, diverse representation of genders improve overall social and human development.
As anthropologists Angie Bexley and Maj Nygaard-Christensen pointed out in a 2015 piece on gender violence in Timor-Leste: “Everyday condoning of discrimination against women is reinforced by misunderstandings in Timorese media and, sometimes, in civil society organization (CSO) debates, where women’s rights and protection tend to be portrayed primarily as a responsibility of female members of government, rather than a shared responsibility for all.”
Journalist David Hutt, writing in ‘The Diplomat’ online publication in December 2016, commented as well, “If the intention of having gender quotas is only to have more women in politics so that they can agitate specifically for policies that affect women then not only is this incredibly patronizing, as it belittles the role of women on national issues, but it also has the effect of homogenizing women into one single bloc, solely based on gender (not the best start if the goal is to foster more autonomy and individuality).”
Governance expert Cummins, for instance, was dismayed in witnessing women members of village councils reduced to preparing and serving food and drinks and — occasionally, she said – note-taking during meetings. They did not participate in the discussions, Cummins said. But no one seemed to be paying attention to how they were doing as council members.
Wrote Cummins: “(Since) the introduction of reserved seats in 2004, there appears to have been limited public interest on how these women are performing. Instead, the focus of the Timor-Leste government, the United Nations, and non-government organisations alike has been on encouraging more women to run for election to the post of xefe suku.”
(*This article was produced under the Developing Media Fellowship program of SEAPA for 2017, which focuses on ASEAN, gender and access to information. While Timor-Leste remains an applicant for ASEAN membership, SEAPA’s programs include participants from that country.