October 27th, 2009 14:07 EST
Nation's Gender Goals
By Elena Masilungan
Timor-Leste in Southeast Asia, one of the world`s youngest countries, has its hands full with nation-building and strengthening governance in the wake of devastation wrought by war and conflict. At the same time, efforts are also being made to transform its traditionally patriarchal society into a more gender-equal one. So determined are its legislators to do this that a group of them this August went to the Philippines, which has recently approved a Magna Carta of Women. The idea was to learn from the Filipino experience of crafting a gender-equality law.
The Philippines has just approved - on August 14, 2009 - the Magna Carta of Women, or Republic Act (RA) 9710, that is linked directly to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the international bill of rights of women. RA 9710 also defines discrimination against women and identifies their rights under the law, especially those of the poor and the marginalised.
The one thing going for Timorese women is that they are able to participate in nation-building right after their country won independence in 2002. Politics is one area where Timorese women have made significant progress compared with women from other countries in the region. "Women make up 29.2 per cent of all parliamentarians. This is because the electoral law directed political parties to include at least one woman per five candidates," explained Maria Fernanda Lay, head of the 11-member delegation that came to the Philippines for a one-week study visit.
The ratio of women lawmakers in the National Parliament is nearly 30 per cent - the critical percentage for women representatives in national assemblies recommended by the United Nations - making Timor-Leste the highest ranked in Southeast Asia. It is placed 26th out of 137 countries with the most number of women legislators in national legislative bodies.
Even before the election, gender equality and women`s rights have already been figuring prominently among the country`s priorities. Article 17 of its Constitution pledged full equality between women and men in all spheres of life. "Since Timor was coming out of a war of independence, one of the first tasks of the government then was to create a legal framework that advances stability and socioeconomic development based on equality, including gender equality and respect for human rights and freedoms," Lay continued. "The government right away ratified the CEDAW and its Optional Protocol in 2003. Then it created a Penal Code with a gender perspective, even including provisions that criminalised domestic violence."
But while efforts are being made for gender to influence policies and programmes at the national level, the situation is different in local communities and villages. According to Idelta Maria Rodrigues, Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality, "Achieving gender equality in Timor-Leste has to be part of a holistic effort that focuses not only on involving more women in politics, but also practical actions aimed at improving the lot of women in the country, especially that of the rural poor."
"Our culture is still deeply patriarchal. Even some male members in parliament are still traditional in their thinking. They do not see the need for change. Women, on the other hand, do not even know what their rights are. They have a relatively low level of literacy. Even if some of them are aware of their rights, they are unable to demand that these be respected and protected. Men in Timor-Leste have always considered women as the weaker sex or their property," Lay added.
Timor-Leste`s 2006 National Human Development Report noted the prevailing discrimination against women and girls in homes, workplaces, and in the larger community. It also noted the country`s fertility and maternal mortality levels - which are among the highest in the world - and the rampant occurrence of gender-based violence.
"The challenge for us parliamentarians is to identify policies and practices that discriminate against women and make specific laws to change them. At the same time, we have to involve everyone in this by educating them on what gender equality is, especially women at the grassroots level. We hope to involve them in public hearings on these laws so that we can get their feedback and it will not only be the men who will be talking there," Lay said.
Timor-Leste`s Council of Ministers is set to approve a draft law on equal land and property rights for women and men and a bill protecting victims of domestic violence and guaranteeing their rights to shelters and support services. Both these are expected to be passed within the year.
Lay, who also chairs the committee on poverty reduction, rural development and gender equality in parliament, cited how in working for the approval of the bill on the Magna Carta of Women in the Philippines, different women`s groups and gender advocates from all over the country were consulted and dialogues with those who opposed the move were also conducted. "One very important lesson I learned (from the Philippine experience) is to consult with every stakeholder. The exchange of information will help in improving the provisions of the law. More women will know what it is all about and how it will affect their lives. Knowing about women`s rights can also make more groups support a law that will protect these rights," Lay added.
Information dissemination and consultation are even more crucial if the proposed law challenges traditional gender roles and relations. "I believe it is necessary for us legislators to hold dialogues and disseminate information on our proposed laws with sectors that remain conservative in their views about gender issues, such as the Church. Because Timor-Leste, like the Philippines, has a largely Catholic population, we cannot ignore the sentiments of the bishops with regard to gender-sensitive laws, especially those pertaining to abortion and the use of modern contraceptive methods. We must continue to have an open line of communication with Church leaders," Lay maintained.
So far, there is no conflict brewing between the Church and gender advocates. This is a welcome situation and portends well for gender equality taking root in a fledgling nation with a highly patriarchal culture.
(Â© Women`s Feature Service)
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