Chapter 02: Politics - Field Stories
Related Countries:
State-Building for Gender Equality in Timor-Leste

As elections approached in Timor-Leste in the Spring of 2007, the Timorese people and the international community looked on with both anticipation and trepidation. Would Timor-Leste, one of the world's youngest nations, continue on its path to democracy and the consolidation of democratic institutions, which began with the independence referendum of 1999? The remarkable voter turnout quickly assuaged the anxiety of observers: 81% of registered voters went to the polls, 47% of them women. They elected 65 new members of parliament, including 20 female MPs. During the election, women candidates signed on to a Women's Political Platform, emphasizing their common goal of giving women's issues a prominent place on the political agenda, and the General Election Monitoring Commission (KOMEG), a group of men and women advocating women's political participation, closely monitored the commitments of political parties to gender equality.

Today, women in Timor-Leste are represented in significant numbers at the highest levels of political decision-making and increasingly at the local level: they constitute close to 30% of MPs, hold 3 out of 9 cabinet posts including three key ministries – Justice, Finance and Social Solidarity – and an increasing number of seats on village councils. Numeric representation, furthermore, is reinforced by a strong public commitment to gender equality: Timor-Leste has a women's parliamentary caucus, a parliamentary committee devoted to Gender Equality, Poverty Reduction and Rural and Regional Development; a Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality under the Office of the Prime Minister, and, most recently, a Prime Ministerial Commission for Gender Equality, among other mechanisms devoted to women's rights and empowerment.

Accountability in Timor-Leste, however, as in all other countries emerging from the trauma of prolonged violent conflict, remains an enormously complex political and institutional project. In the new state of Timor-Leste the public administration literally had to be built from scratch. In 1999, for example, there were only 70 lawyers in the country and no formal judicial system, no civil service and no political institutions to ensure citizen's access to justice in the emerging independent state.

Unlike many other post-conflict contexts, Timorese women were able to engage centrally in state-building from the start. In this they were assisted by the United Nations peacekeeping missions that sought to support national accountability to women. The first United Nations mission (2000-2002), for example, promoted gender equality in policy, programmes and legislation in the East Timor Transitional Administration. This eventually evolved into a policy-making mechanism strategically integrated into the new government. With the support of a representative network of women's organizations and a critical mass of women in high-level decision-making positions, this work provided the foundation for the comprehensive institutional framework for gender equality that exists today. As the Special Representative of the Secretary General, Atul Khare, has pointed out, "Women are strong advocates for justice and accountability. Therefore, the alliance between peacekeeping operations, women and women's organizations is crucial for promoting long-term stability in any country."