Iha lalehan nia klaran no rai - Living between Heaven and Earth: Understanding jender in Timor-Leste

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (Book)Researchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


To understand gender relations in Timor-Leste we must have a deep appreciation of local social systems, taking into account their variety and flexibility. An appreciation of how people organize themselves and what their values and perceptions might be is often best provided by anthropologists. Anthropologists, with a tradition of cultural relativism, along with cultural advocates, often agree that women in Timor-Leste are honoured and awarded status and power in local cosmology and that they have an important place in the private realm or ‘informally’. While this illuminates an important dimension of women’s lives in contemporary Timor-Leste, to fully appreciate the different status of women and men in society we must also include a more formal political economy analysis. Such an analysis provides an alternative picture. Women in Timor are shown to have higher levels of malnutrition and illit-eracy than men. Women earn an eighth of the income of men. The fertility rate is one of the highest in the world as are the corresponding rates of maternal and infant mortality. To understand why these circumstances exist, we must combine the socio-cultural approach with a political economy analysis through which a more complete understanding emerges about the status of women. The chapters in this collection bring these two forms of analysis together and show how the dynamics of gender relations operate across different domains of culture, history, economy and politics in Timor-Leste today. At the heart of the many challenges surrounding the pursuit of genderequality in Timor-Leste is how the concept of gender is understood and interpreted. Local understanding of the roles and relations of men and women are embedded in local social systems and are discussed further below and throughout the chapters in this collection. However, the concept of gender or jender is an imported and relatively new word for most people and there are varied levels of appreciation about what it means. For many Timorese people, jender is associated with international aid and development programmes which arrived in 1999 and where the term was used liberally. In these programmes women were targeted and favoured, sometimes at the expense of men (Niner 2012). For educated Timorese, this understanding may be combined with perceptions derived from Indonesian universityand still are Women’s and Gender Studies Network in Asia Pacific (WGSNAP) as a ‘“handmaiden” of the Indonesian state’. Women’s or family studies centres in Indonesian universities were initially established by the Indonesian government to undertake ‘family studies’ and carry out research on gender for planning and policy formulation. These centres collect gender-disaggregated data for the government but the Gender Studies Network concludes that this is a purely descriptive task and the further step of analysing women and men’s social conditions and the power hierarchies that maintain them is not taken. There are few links between these centres and local women’s movements that advocate for emancipation or gender equality (WGSNAP 2013). These imported understandings of gender are prevalent amongst Timoresewho work in gender-focused positions in bureaucracies and agencies, many of them men, resulting in little focus on reducing discrimination against women or working toward gender equality. Activists and advocates working towards these goals are mostly women working in the under-resourced Timorese women’s movement, and local civil society organizations outside the mainstream. Nevertheless, some of the later persuasion are based in government departments and international agencies, working alongside international staff and international advisers. Their understanding of what gender means is different and has an emancipatory or political aspect and they are often working at the harsh edge of gender inequality programswhich assist survivors of domestic violence (DV). What has resulted in Timor-Leste (TL) is the lack of a shared and coherent understanding of the concept of gender and how it is employed within the sector. This is a stumbling block and has led to a lack of cohesiveness in the building of a proactive movement for gender equality in TL. With some notable exceptions, this means there has been little local analy-sis of the power relations that underlie gender roles, relationships and inequality in Timor. This can also be lacking in much of the international analysis. Academics are notorious for being gender-blind in their analysis of Timor (and is the motivation for compiling a book such as this where gender is the focus). Also, as Andrea Cornwall points out in her critique, so can international aid and development programmes:Power has come to be represented as something that can be bestowed or acquired rather than a structural relation that is in itself gendered. And targeted ‘investment’ has come to displace any consideration of the broader social changes that need to take place if the persistent inequalities associated with gender difference are to be eradicated. … the complex interactions between gender and other axes of inequality in the lives of both women and men are lost from view, and the policies and programmes of economic and political elites that shape such interactions rendered invisible.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWomen and the Politics of Gender in Post-Conflict Timor-Leste
Subtitle of host publicationBetween Heaven and Earth
EditorsSara Niner
Place of PublicationAbingdon Oxon UK
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781315657387
ISBN (Print)9781138999121
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

NameASAA Women in Asia Series
PublisherTaylor and Francis

Cite this