Currently, in Timor-Leste, the main challenges for women remain deep poverty, frequent cases of domestic violence, and lack of recognition of women’s contribution to the political, economic, and social spheres. Economic empowerment is particularly crucial as conflict during the Indonesian occupation and violence following the popular consultation on independence in 1999 left nearly half of all Timorese women widowed and sole providers for their families.
With a grant from the European Union of US$869,565 and a contribution from the Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC) of US$38,587, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and Rede Feto Timor-Leste, an umbrella women’s organization, are teaming up to implement a four-year project called Hakbiit Feto (“Empower Women”) in the municipalities of Ainaro, Bobanaro, Baucau, and Dili.
Hakbiit Feto will contribute to increasing respect for fundamental human rights by supporting and strengthening the role of women as key agents for sustainable development and change, particularly the most vulnerable women. The initiative formally got underway on March 1, 2021, aiming to promote social inclusion and economic opportunities for women in Timor-Leste and strengthen the capacity of local civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate effectively. An official face-to-face launch was not possible due to current COVID-19 restrictions in Dili.
The initiative will help 45 CSOs create gender awareness and inclusion programs and support female heads of households in production, processing, trading, and saving-and-loan activities.
Hakbiit Feto's main objective is to empower women socially and economically. It will provide education on climate-smart agriculture, organic production methods, basic business literacy, and numeracy and facilitating farmers’ access to micro-finance to access the markets. To boost productivity and sales of women farmers, it will provide a mobile application that will give real-time and reliable information on markets, prices, vendors, weather, and soil quality.
“Equality between women and men is a fundamental principle of the European Union. Ensuring equality is one of our core objectives, and this is an important battle to fight, both inside and outside the EU,” Andrew Jacobs, European Union ambassador to Timor-Leste, said. “Investing in Timorese women’s economic empowerment sets them on a direct path towards gender equality, poverty, eradication, and inclusive economic growth.”
Jacobs added that women make an enormous contribution to the Timorese economy, whether in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home. “Civil society organizations like ADRA and Rede Feto are often best placed to work at the local level to unlock women's power and underline the added value of having women adequately represented in society. I am very proud to launch the Hakbiit Feto project in Timor-Leste,” he emphasized.
Zelia Fernandes, board chair of Rede Feto Timor-Leste, said that Rede Feto has a strong commitment to implement the new project. “We believe in all partners,” she said. “We are thankful to the European Union through ADRA Timor-Leste in their trust to work together with Rede Feto in the Hakbiit Feto project.”
Marcel Wagner, ADRA Austria director, said that women in particular experience the positive effects of ADRA’s initiative by being able to enter a marketplace previously closed to them and providing dependable income, self-reliance, and even safety for them and their children. “Connectedness is one of ADRA’s core values,” Wagner said. “Connected to our CSO partners and strengthening their reach and collaboration, we are committed to empowering women; individually, but also organized in community-based organizations such as village savings and loan schemes, in groups for agricultural production and processing, as well as for collective marketing.”
While 80 percent of Timorese depend on subsistence agriculture as the primary source of income, productivity returns on agriculture labor are 75 to 80 percent lower than agriculture productivity in most Southeast Asian countries. Lack of employment and alternate livelihood opportunities, especially among women, are major causes of poverty and vulnerability. The uptake of microfinance nationally is only 5 percent. Women tend to have less access and control over productive assets and labor-saving equipment and smaller or more localized trading networks than men.