Matt Crook* interviews IDELTA RODRIGUES, East Timor’s first secretary of state for the promotion of equality and a key government leader
DILI, Sep 22 (IPS) - For more than seven years, the men and women of East Timor have been working to rebuild their nation after a destructive 24-year occupation by the Indonesian army.
The country of more than one million people – which became an independent nation in May 2002 – put back the infrastructure damaged by the Indonesian army and its militias when they left in 1999. It has also been strengthening its social structure – including by getting women more involved in politics in this patriarchal society.
East Timor now has female representation of almost 30 percent in the national parliament.
The Office of the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality (SEPI) was created after the 2007 elections to promote greater awareness of gender issues and build on the work of its predecessor, the Office of the Advisor for the Promotion of Equality. Under Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s cabinet, SEPI tackles gender mainstreaming through government ministries, secretariats and legislation. SEPI also supports gender issues in politics and legislation.
The Organic Law of SEPI, approved in 2008, gave SEPI a wider mandate for operations, prioritising key sectors in which to promote gender awareness. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) supports SEPI in its work, including in educating people about gender-based violence.
Idelta Rodrigues, a former member of parliament, is with the Conselho Nacional da Reconstrução de Timor, or the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor, party.
It was not until the 35-year-old Rodrigues witnessed the violence that broke out 2006 that she decided to get into politics to support women’s rights. That year saw the displacement of more than 100,000 people and fighting in the streets of the capital Dili between the army, police, gangs and martial arts groups.
IPS: What was it like when you first got into politics?
IDELTA RODRIGUES: To decide to get involved in politics was not easy because of the situation in East Timor. When I decided to participate in politics, it was a commitment from myself after seeing the difficulties that women face in East Timor, particularly violence against women, trafficking and discrimination.
The commitment came from myself because of the crisis, because of the many problems and because of many political issues that affect women’s situations in the house, the family and the community.
To become a leader in a post-conflict situation is not easy because of the situation and also because the mentality of the people as a young nation is different when compared to another nation, as they have had more time to give opportunities to the young generation.
Actually, my whole family was unhappy at first because they felt I was too young and the situation at the time was very bad. After the impact of the crisis of 2006, I decided I would like to change something for this country. There was fighting and killing everywhere, and as a woman I said, ‘No, I would like to do something positive for this nation,’ so I feel my contribution is important to make a difference.
IPS: Why did you want to be a secretary of state?
IR: Establishing the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality was a crucial commitment for the government of East Timor. It recognises the need to advance women’s rights and gender equality in the promotion of peace and development. The office of SEPI is responsible for policies related to the promotion of gender equality.
As part of the young generation, I would like to contribute to my country as there is a need for women’s participation. . . . Now you see that even though we have just started, we have made a lot of progress in women’s participation in politics. We have almost 30 percent representation in the parliament.
It means that the rights of women are important issues in this nation and that women are not only there to complement the structure. The quality of the women is very important. We need strong women who have the capacity to lead. We need people with good voices.
IPS: East Timorese women played an active and crucial role throughout the struggle for the independence, but years of conflict had a negative impact on the livelihoods and well-being of everyone in the country. What are the main challenges ahead for SEPI?
IR: We just finalised the strategy plan for 2010 to 2015. The main priority now is to build the capacity of my staff. A number of civil servants are being recruited to reinforce SEPI’s capacity to respond to the various needs in line with the mandate of my office.
We would have to advocate for rights-based and gender-responsive policies and legislation in government. We have raised (issues) about how to implement policy on gender mainstreaming in line with the ministries of justice, education, health and agriculture – these are the four ministries that we have prioritised now. At the same time, we also need to raise the level of gender awareness among stakeholders and the general public at the national and local levels.
IPS: Are East Timor’s female parliamentarians making their voices heard on gender-responsive policies and legislation?
IR: Getting the draft law against domestic violence passed this year is what we are focused on right now. SEPI led the process of preparing the domestic violence law that was presented to the Council of Ministers in August and has been approved in principle, but it has yet to be debated in the parliament. It’s an important law to prevent domestic violence in East Timor and it will provide a framework for a national strategy on gender-based violence.
Even though we feel we have strong voices, we know the mentality of Timorese people because we are a patriarchal society and we need to develop step by step. But I know the women parliamentarians are very strong. There is progress. It’s easy enough for us to lobby with other women, but sometimes to lobby men is very difficult.
IPS: How would you rate the progress that SEPI has made so far?
IR: I feel that some progress is ongoing. SEPI has regular meetings with the women parliamentarians, so we have good collaboration to discuss any difficulties we are having and how we can work together to promote women’s rights.
SEPI also meets regularly with Fernanda Borges, the president of Commission A (a parliamentary body that works on human rights and justice issues), so we have good collaboration because we have meetings where we can raise any issues about difficulties we have in our office and ways we can work together to promote women’s rights. I’m happy because I feel that now I can work, I can realise my dream. This is what I want to do.
Right now, we collaborate with UNIFEM and women’s organisations to go to every district to raise public awareness about how to prepare women as leaders in the forthcoming suco elections (for community leaders on Oct. 9). The big issue is how women will participate in the election process. It’s not only about participation by going out to vote, but getting women elected as leaders.
(*This article was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on gender and development, with the support of UNIFEM East and South-east Asia Regional Office.)