This year, Timor-Leste – otherwise known as East Timor – turned 20-years-old. A significant achievement for this beautiful, young country that is home to vibrant marine life and incredible biodiversity – not to mention scrumptious vanilla, coffee and chocolate.
With its rugged mountains, Timor-Leste looks picture postcard perfect. The first thing that struck me when I arrived on the island country – which occupies the east part of Timor at the southern extreme of the Malay Archipelago – was its stunning beauty. It is rich in diverse wildlife, hot springs and mountain streams, with hidden corners of golden sand, scrub and grass growing in the lowlands, together with coconut palms and eucalyptus trees. Timor-Leste is a place of amazing variety, with a rich history and evidence of its Portuguese colonial past at every turn. Its people too are gracious and welcoming.
A brutal history
Despite the nation’s beauty, uniqueness and warmth, however, is the dark shadow of a brutal struggle for independence. Large swathes of Timorese people died because of fighting, famine and disease during the 20th Century.
Colonised by the Portuguese during the 1700s, Timor-Leste was occupied by the Japanese during the 1940s. During this period of occupation, around 60,000 Timorese tragically died. In 1974, a new Portuguese administration began the policy of decolonisation, culminating in a short-lived civil war and eventually independence. However, it was only a brief respite. Around 200,000 people – one quarter of the population – died after Indonesian troops invaded. In 1999, 78 per cent of voters opted for independence, which was followed by an anti-independence militia campaign of terror. Finally, the UN took control and worked to prepare the nation for independence, which was achieved when Timor-Leste became the first new sovereign state of the 21st Century on 20 May 2002.
Emerging from conflict
Fast forward to 2022, and things are relatively peaceful in Timor-Leste. That said, years of conflict and oppression have left a deep impression and for many people, life remains hard. Timor-Leste is still facing a myriad of challenges including high unemployment and poor health.
When I met with President José Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak however, they shared with me that conditions have improved dramatically since independence. In 2002, there was almost no electricity – now 96.1 per cent of the territory has electricity, which has raised living standards considerably. I’m stunned to learn that 20-years ago Timor-Leste only had 20 medical doctors, now it has 1,200! This is testament to the increasing importance placed on education – despite there still being too few schools and many children being forced to learn in ‘shifts’.
Women challenging the status quo
Women have been disproportionately disadvantaged throughout Timor-Leste’s brutal past, which is why their individual achievements are particularly impressive and important to highlight. In traditional East Timorese society, women are expected to manage the home and all too often have had to overcome multiple layers of violence before they can even start to build successful, self-determined lives.
Bella Galhos is a female human right activist who is challenging norms and fighting for change across the country. Known for her environmental work and economic empowerment of women, young people, and vulnerable groups, she has unfailing passion and energy. In fact, her contribution to Timor-Leste earned her the Unsung Heroes of Compassion award from Dalai Lama.
Bella is the founder of Leublora Green School in Maubisse – the only environmental education facility dedicated to promoting sustainable development in Timor-Leste. She is also a voice for the LGBTI community, regularly speaking out to ensure LGBTI people are treated with dignity and respect – a huge responsibility in a country still embracing more modern, mainstream values.
Another young female activist is Juvita Pereira Faria, who represents the voice of young people in Timor-Leste. Incredibly, 74 per cent of the nation’s population is made up of young people – making it the 15th youngest country in the world! While this creates incredible opportunities for economic innovation and growth, a persistent attachment to tradition often results in resistance to human development and progress.
Through the foundation of the Youth Leadership Development Program, Juvita provides free leadership training to all young people to give them the confidence and vision to flourish.
Dulce de Jesus Soares – ensuring access to education
A third shining light within the country, who I was privileged to spend time with, is the former Minister for Education, Youth and Sport – and now education advisor to the President – Dulce de Jesus Soares.
Originally educated in Australia and Indonesia, Dr Soares has played a major role in ensuring equal access and quality of education to all children in Timor-Leste, especially those in rural areas. Her long list of achievements incudes developing a bilingual child friendly curriculum for grade one to six pupils, developing guidelines for pre-school (three-years to five-years), and significantly increasing the provision of books for children in schools.
A beautiful moment occurred when I was with Dulce – a proud mother, grandmother, and aunt to many. We had just visited Cristo Rei of Dili (Christ the King of Dili) – a colossal statue of Jesus Christ similar to Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Some of Dulce’s nieces walked past us and, to greet Dulce, they took her slight hand, kissed it, and placed it on their heads. It was as though they were seeking her blessing and wisdom in the most gentle and delicate way. This symbolic gesture impressed me most from my time in Timor-Leste and is something I will always remember.
Hope for the future
What the future holds for Timor-Leste remains to be seen, but I am hopeful. Hearing the stories of these bold, passionate, highly respected women I feel certain that things are on an upward trajectory.
I am pleased to hear that in the 20-years since independence, life expectancy has increased by more than 10-years, particularly for women. Female representation in parliament and, in particular, the executive branch is one of the highest among developing countries, with women holding the key roles of Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Health, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Governor of the Central Bank. It is also significant that more women than men are currently studying medicine – demonstrating the leap in in female education.
As the country looks back over the past 20-years, it can certainly look forward to the next 20 with a greater sense of hope.