Edging towards gender equity in the Timor-Leste parliament

In May 2018, Timor-Leste went to the polls for their second parliamentary election in less than a year, and Kate attended as an election observer.

Kate’s research focusses on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in developing countries – a significantly gendered issue, as women and children bear most of the work of collecting water across the developing world – and we both work at the Melbourne School of Government, so as well as being keen to observe the democratic processes of Timor-Leste, Kate and Stephanie were particularly interested in gender representation.

In previous elections Timor-Leste has had a parliament comprising of 38% women.  This is the highest representation of women in Parliament in the Asia Pacific region, including Australia. This year female representation is 34%, around the same as we have here in Australia.

In a patriarchal society with strong gender norms still being adhered to, there is only one way that Timor-Leste could achieve women’s representation this high. It has a quota system whereby women must be included on candidate lists. The decree law says:

The lists of effective and alternate candidates shall include at least 1 (one) woman candidate for every group of 3 (three) candidates

This means that women are not only included in party candidate lists, but are included throughout the list – out of 65 candidates the first female candidate cannot be placed lower than 3rd on the list. In an election where voting is by party rather than by individual candidate, this creates a situation where women must be elected to parliament.

Clearly the quota system works – women make up only 5% of Local Government Suco Chiefs, where quotas aren’t applied, demonstrating that without a quota, women are much less likely to be elected.

We also now know that only 2 out of 21 ministers are women, 2 out of 10 vice ministers are women and 1 out 9 secretaries are women.

So, is Timor-Leste an example of why quotas should be implemented more broadly?  While the impact of gender quotas on numbers of women in the Timor-Leste parliament is clear, the impact on policy, action and social norms across the country is less clear.  And there is (always) criticism that quotas create tokenism, despite good evidence from Sweden that gender quotas lead to an overall increase of political competence as mediocre men are displaced by highly competent women.

If women who are elected are at least as competent as their male counterparts, then the perceived or actual lack of power or influence of women must come from a source that isn’t related to merit. Political leadership is male dominated in Timor-Leste, if women aren’t influential in politics, it’s because powerful men are choosing to sideline the women in their political organisations. We suspect that this is the main reason why gender quotas lead to allegations of tokenism, and perhaps why it takes longer for women to have an influence, and for that influence to be noticed. This trend applies universally, and Australian political parties and parliaments are by no means an exception.

Without quotas there would be less women, less chance of change, and less opportunity for young women to see strong female role models in local media. While women are still finding their voices in Timorese society, and in many other societies, quotas are necessary to ensure that men see and understand women as equal partners in decision making. Quotas have made sure that women are ‘in the room’, now it is up to male leaders to recognise, use and highlight the voices, skills and perspectives that these women bring to the table.

Will men like the new President of Timor-Leste, Taur Matan Ruak, be strong enough to support women representatives and bring them forward in their parties and in the parliament, despite inevitable criticism? We certainly hope so – Timor-Leste cannot afford to ignore the talents of half its population and a third of its parliament.

Counting Ballots in Aileu, Timor-Leste

Photo credit: Dr Kate Neely

About the Authors

Dr Kate Neely is Director of Research Translation at Melbourne School of Government. She has contributed to several academic fields including science, science education, international development, research education and sociology. Kate is a systems thinking specialist whose current work includes discovering the drivers and barriers to effective research translation and mobilization. Kate is also developing system dynamics based workshop methods for effective trans-disciplinary collaborations around complex problems. Kate’s research into water supply in Timor-Leste has led to significant improvements in the implementation and management of community based water supply.

Dr Kate Neely is contactable at kate.neely@unimelb.edu.au or @geckokate

Stephanie Amir is the Program Manager for the Pathways to Politics Program.  She has worked across all three levels of government in research, policy development, as secretariat for a Victorian parliamentary committee and advisor to Ellen Sandell MP.  She has also worked as a social policy consultant advising clients in the government and community sectors, and as a manager at the Foundation for Young Australians.  She has a Bachelor of Science (Honours), Bachelor of Arts and postgraduate specialist certificate in Social Inclusion, all from the University of Melbourne.  Outside the university she is on the Board of Directors at community radio station JOY 94.9 and is proud to be the youngest current Councillor at the City of Darebin.

Stephanie Amir is contactable at stephanie.amir@unimelb.edu.au or @stephanie_amir.