Timor-Leste: Australian volunteers help improve women's rights

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Australian Volunteers Program partner organisation the Working Women’s Centre Timor-Leste (WWCTL): (Left to right) Program Coordinator Maria Josefina, Coordinator Ricar Pascoela and Advocacy Officer Beatriz de Costa Fernandes with signs advocating for the rights of female domestic workers. Photo: Henry Smith

For close to 20 years the Australian Volunteers Program has partnered with organisations in Timor-Leste working towards gender equality, empowering women and reducing gender-based violence.

Since 2001, 15 Australian volunteers have supported the work of Timor-Leste’s Alola Foundation to advocate for the rights of women and children and nurture female leaders.

The Alola Foundation’s Education Program Manager, Ema de Sousa Freitas, says the foundation’s purpose is to ensure women in Timor-Leste have equal status in all aspects of life through education, economic empowerment, health and community leadership.

“The organisation was formed in 2001 by Kirsty Sword Gusmão, former First Lady of Timor-Leste, to focus on advocacy for victims of gender-based violence. Although this is still a key issue, today the foundation provides a wide range of important support for women and children.

“We are currently working with community groups and individuals to improve maternal and child health, create employment, promote human rights, strengthen community development and improve the status of women across the country.”

Australian volunteer Ellen Gallagher is doing a 22-month assignment as Organisational Management Mentor with the Foundation.

Ellen says the foundation’s advocacy work happens from grass roots through to international levels: “At the grass roots there are community campaigns to raise awareness about women’s legal rights and at the international level Alola contributes to reports to the UN about the status of women in Timor-Leste. In between Alola works closely with Timor-Leste Government at all levels.”

Ellen is working with the organisation’s CEO and management team to refine monitoring and evaluation practices and strengthen the capacity of the program’s managers.

“I am privileged to work with a fantastic management team, so I can response to challenges and opportunities as they come up,” says Ellen.

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Australian volunteer Organisational Management Mentor Ellen Gallagher (middle) with colleagues at the program’s partner organisation the Alola Foundation. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono.

Ema says Ellen’s flexibility has been greatly appreciated: “Ellen is the most flexible person in sharing her time to support our program managers in terms of reporting, searching for funding, writing and communication development skills, monitoring and evaluating planning and implementation.”

Ema says Australian volunteers have made a great contribution to the organisation overall.

The great thing about Australian volunteers is they easily adapt to the environment and culture; they are friendly in sharing their experiences.

— Ema de Sousa Freitas

A recent partner of the Australian Volunteers Program, the Working Women’s Centre Timor-Leste (WWCTL), provides education, advocacy and support to vulnerable women workers in Timor-Leste.

Coordinator at the WWCTL, Ricar Pascoela, says the organisation is essential in ensuring vulnerable domestic workers in Timor-Leste are recognised as workers, have access to decent work and the right to legal protections.

“Domestic work in Timor-Leste is increasingly a source of employment for women, most of whom come from limited educational and socio-economic backgrounds,” she explains.

“This vulnerability is compounded by the exclusion of domestic workers – a category that includes nannies and general domestic workers employed in private homes – from the Labour Code of Timor-Leste.

This lack of legal protection leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation and without basic guarantees of income, rest days and breaks, or access to safe working conditions.

— Ricar Pascoela

“Domestic workers are vulnerable to economic exploitation and physical and sexual abuse. We have met domestic workers earning as little as $US30 a month, with no weekly rest day.”

Australian Volunteer Bree Ahrens is on a 24-month assignment with the WWCTL as an Advocacy and Communications Mentor, helping to strengthen her colleagues’ advocacy and communication skills.

Australian volunteer Advocacy and Communications Mentor Bree Ahrens (on bicycle) with some of her colleagues at the Working Women’s Centre Timor-Leste (WWCTL) in the 2018 International Women’s Day March in Dili. Supplied: Bree Ahrens
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Australian volunteer Bree Ahrens (far left) with two of her colleagues on a research trip in August 2017. Supplied: Bree Ahrens

“WWCTL has just three staff members. This means that everyone – including myself – contributes to every aspect of the organisation,” says Bree.

“So, while my focus has been on working with staff to think of and implement strategies to improve outcomes for domestic workers, I also help work on budgets, planning and running events, working out how to take the best photos with each of our phones, and even weeding the office garden!”

Bree is proud of seeing her colleagues start to get the recognition they deserve.

“As a very small organisation, I found very few people knew what WWCTL was when I arrived,” she says.

“Since then my colleagues have become active in representing the interests of vulnerable women workers in diverse forums, and are regularly asked to contribute to panel discussions or share their skills with other organisations.”

I am very proud to see WWCTL and working women’s issues gaining more attention in the broader development sector, and to see my colleagues doing important public advocacy work.

— Bree Ahrens

Ricar says Bree’s contribution has been invaluable: “with Bree’s presence, we have learned how to create our advocacy strategy and engage in individual advocacy and public advocacy, through social media, consultation groups and campaigning.

“Bree has helped us improve our communications skills, develop our slogan and key messages, develop objectives and targets for our campaigns, and with her help we have learnt to be a solid team.

“Our organisation has many changes and Bree motivates us to reach our organisation objectives.”

This International Women’s Day WWCTL will campaign with the message ‘No women workers left behind.