Recognising the need for further female empowerment in Timor-Leste

6 September 2019

Since independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has seen an increase in young people internally migrating, 51.6% being women. On the surface this may come across as pursuit of employment or better education and from rural to urban. However, 38.2% of women migrate for marriage, and they tend to migrate to other rural areas. Whereas 24.5% of men move for education, tending to move to urban areas such as the capital Dili.[1] Better education, hygiene and social mobility is more readily available in urban areas, leaving women with the poor rural amenities. Furthermore, of the 27.5% of migrants that moved for marriage, 71.8% were women.[2] Comparatively, men comprised of 72.9% of the East Timorese population that moved in search of education.

With an absence of men in rural areas, women are left to either fend for themselves in a patriarchal society or find a husband for whom they can migrate elsewhere for. Finding a husband in Timor-Leste is all the more important because although there is a law in place guaranteeing the nation’s women full property rights, de facto it is actually society who dictates that land must be controlled by men. Additionally, those women who do have these rights can lose them if their husband dies or if the marriage ends.[3]

As seen, like the rest of the world a patriarchal system still exists in Timor-Leste, and domestic violence is still a burning issue. In 2016 the Asia Foundation found that 59% of Timorese women aged 15-49 had suffered physical/sexual violence by their partner; perhaps even more shocking is that 86% believe that some cases of wife beating are justifiable.[4] These figures demonstrate how this issue is systemic and innate within the nation’s population, especially in rural areas where education is limited.

During the years building up to the 1999 independence referendum, women who defended the mountains and jungles had endured rape as well as torture from the Indonesian military and the Timorese pro-Indonesian militia.[5] Disappointingly, the women who made up 60% of the clandestinos during the fight for independence, are excluded from the pension scheme put in place for their male counterparts.[6]

HIAM Health staff harvesting new Moringa crops

Constructive measures have been put in place since 2002 in attempt to improve the lives of women, starting with a newly created constitution. This was a great opportunity for women’s rights to gain exposure. With the support of UN Woman, the Gender and Constitution Working Group was created. Their primary purpose was to ensure that women’s rights were included in the democratic constitution.[7] Although some issues are left up to private organisations such as Chega! Ba Ita, who seek ‘the recognition of women survivors of conflict and their current meaningful participation in leadership and nation-building processes.’[8]

More recently, in early 2016 the President of the Civil Service Commission, to the surprise of UN Woman who attended the meeting, unexpectedly expressed the need for guidelines in order to protect women working in the civil service from sexual harassment. Those who have fought for equality in Timor-Leste find it encouraging that the national dialogue on gender-based violence has exceeded the realm of domestic violence and is now observed as a spectrum – ranging from violence during the conflict years with Indonesia to sexual violence and harassment, domestic violence and child sexual abuse.[9] Furthermore, as of 2017 38% of parliamentary seats were occupied by women which is one of Asia’s highest female participation rates,[10] the law is 33%.

Looking forward, rural areas have seen organisations such as HAFORSA support farmers who emphasise gender equality in their community. They are also helping to develop 30 farmer groups, of which 10 will be female and the remaining 20 will be mixed 50/50.[11]

Additionally, HART’s partner, HIAM Health, are empowering and educating women in an effort to tackle malnutrition, especially using the Moringa Tree otherwise known as the “Miracle Tree”. To further their mission of empowering women they aim to re-establish residential care for children who are severely malnourished. Here the mothers are able to stay with their child whilst gaining an education in nutrition, hygiene and horticultural techniques. When the women and children return to their communities, and with the support of HIAM Health the knowledge will be shared and used in a new agricultural garden. This ensures the next generation can utilise the skills learned and fight against malnutrition that has haunted Timor-Leste.

Although there are many programmes and schemes in place, there is still much to do. Change takes times but with support to continue these fruitful building blocks, women will one day sit in the corner office of Timor-Leste!

To support our partners in Timor-Leste, click here and put a reference to ‘HIAM Health’.


[1] Overview of Internal Migration in Timor-Leste. See:

[2] Overview of Internal Migration in Timor-Leste. See:

[3]  The Garden – ‘Violence has not left our homes’: the fight goes on for female guerrillas in Timor-Leste’. See:


[5] UN Women – Civil service takes big steps to end workplace sexual harassment in Timor-Leste. See:


[7] UN Women – UN Women Timor-Leste. See:

[8] UN Women – Survivors raise their voices at a Walk to Remember in Timor-Leste. See:

[9] UN Women – Civil service takes big steps to end workplace sexual harassment in Timor-Leste. See:

[10] The Garden – ‘Violence has not left our homes’: the fight goes on for female guerrillas in Timor-Leste’. See:

[11] Lafaek – HAFORSA. See:

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