Insights and Analysis

Can Timor-Leste’s Gender Quota System Ensure Women’s Participation in Politics?

March 7, 2012

By Susan Marx

Presidential and parliamentary elections in Timor-Leste are scheduled for March and June of this year, respectively. With only two women among the twelve candidates contending for the largely ceremonial post as president, it is unlikely that a female candidate will make it past the first round. However, there is much greater anticipation for women’s success in the mid-year parliamentary election, due, in part, to a recent amendment to a decree that increases the number of required female nominees from one in every four candidates to one in three.

Parliament Research Centre in Timor-Leste

A young woman works on a research project at Timor-Leste’s Parliamentary Research Center. Capacity remains a challenge for many of the potential and existing candidates in politics in Timor-Leste, particularly among women. Photo by Conor Ashleigh.

Since the mid-1990s, it has been considered international best practice to encourage women to participate in politics, with many states introducing gender quotas into their electoral systems. These norms, standards, and quotas, however, have not come without intense debate over their ability to ensure women’s effective and robust participation in the largely male-dominated field of politics. Proponents of the use of quotas argue that they are necessary to gain access, since women can only effectively change the system from within; while opponents cite philosophical notions of the stigma of tokenism and the undercutting effects that can have on legitimate women candidates.

With Timor-Leste’s third-ever parliamentary elections coming up in June, the debate surrounding the quota system has once again risen to the forefront. While the nearly 30 percent female representation in the current legislature constitutes a comparatively high number in Asia and the world, many current and potential women candidates are wondering about the exact significance of their own participation. As part of The Asia Foundation’s work to help female potential parliamentary candidates prepare for the elections, we recently met with over 40 stakeholders in the Timorese political arena to discuss these very issues.

While scholars debate notions of “descriptive” vs. “substantive” female representation, Timorese women are questioning the practicalities of participating within a historically patriarchal society. What was interesting in our research was that many of the women currently active in politics were adamant in demanding more meaningful participation. They cite the lack of women in leadership roles and decision-making positions as evidence that political parties use women’s participation only in an attempt to placate critics and to satisfy the quota requirements. Other potential candidates cited the lack of regard for women’s views within the political fray as one of the main deterrents from becoming involved themselves.

There is certainly no doubt that capacity remains a challenge for many of the potential and existing candidates in politics in Timor-Leste, particularly among women. Historical exclusion from educational opportunities, language barriers, family responsibilities, and a huge gap between the capital, Dili, and rest of the country are only a few examples of the challenges that women have to overcome. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found during our research a dichotomy between the views of women who were active during Timor-Leste’s resistance and the more recently returned members of the diaspora. Many cited the need for women themselves to be able to bring more skills and capacity to the table if they want to be taken seriously and promoted into leadership roles. They expressed a dire need for greater professionalization of candidates and current members, including strengthening analytical skills and critical thinking, to ensure that women are not only heard, but listened to. At the same time, Timor-Leste’s historically male-dominated political parties need to commit to implementing more targeted programs that help develop and nurture up-and-coming female leaders.

Organizations such as the Women’s Caucus in parliament, women’s organizations within the political parties, and women’s specific civil society umbrella organizations such as Rede Feto are important lobbying platforms for women in politics here. Similarly, the current quota system for women in parliament is an important mechanism to support greater women’s access and participation. But according to a growing number of Timorese women in politics, the quota should only be seen as a “temporary special measure,” a means to an end, and not an end itself. The women we spoke with said that there is an opportunity with the new generation of female leaders to eventually transition to a purely merit-based participation, but only if political parties are willing to change their own patriarchal ways and allow women full participation in leadership.

Susan Marx is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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