Timor-Leste: Bringing out the rural woman vote

Senora Mendonça Côrte-Real (left) is the country’s oldest registered voter. Photo: UNDP Timor Leste
Senora Mendonça Côrte-Real (left) is the country’s oldest registered voter. Photo: UNDP Timor Leste

By John Fenech, third place of UNDP's storytelling contest

Senora Mendonça Côrte-Real, a grandmother from the capital city of Dili in Timor-Leste, is now the country’s oldest registered voter after having finally been given the chance to exercise a democratic vote for the first time at the ripe old age of 92.

She celebrated by attending a special event, along with Timor-Leste’s President, celebrating the success of the 2010 national voter registration campaign that focused on marginalized Timorese women.  The ongoing campaign has been registering these women and others in the run-up to the nation’s second ever presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012.

Highlights

  • The illiteracy rate of the elder women in rural areas in Timor-Leste is one of the highest in South East Asia.
  • More than 15,000 elder women registered during the campaign.
  • By the end of the 2012 elections, Timor-Leste will be among the countries with the highest percentage of female representation in the world.

Timor-Leste is one of the world’s youngest nations and is currently undertaking an ambitious project to build a democratic society and culture in a country that, after being subject to foreign rule for over 400 years, has barely had any prior exposure to democratic governance.

In 2007, UNDP and the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste jointly embarked upon a comprehensive electoral cycle support project in partnership with the State Secretariat for Electoral Administration, the National Electoral Commission and multiple international donors. The $US5.3 million project is focused on consolidating democracy in a country only recently emerging from conflict and also has been strengthening the democratic institutions needed to facilitate a strong and thriving democracy.

Targeted voter-registration outreach programmes formed part of the project, aimed at taking electoral information and registration facilities out to under-represented groups. In 2010, those programmes specifically reached out to elderly and illiterate women.

Female participation in civic or political affairs has historically been quite low, partly because most women in Timor-Leste spend much of their time struggling to make a living through farming while running a household. Additionally, the illiteracy rate of elderly, rural women is one of the highest in South East Asia.

For the 2010 special voter registration campaign, 65 registration teams travelled throughout Timor-Leste’s 13 districts, successfully signing up over 15,000 elderly women for the first time. The teams also worked to encourage female voter participation in general.

This emphasis on women’s involvement in the voting process has been part of a Government-led effort, supported by UNDP, to fast-track female participation in decision making. The progress is already evident:

The progress made towards a burgeoning civil society and democratic culture is already an incredible achievement for Timor-Leste. But the sign of a truly healthy democracy is one that values and promotes participation by all its citizens, and as 92-year-old Senora Mendonça Côrte-Real can attest to, Timor-Leste is quickly making that a reality.

Bio: John Fenech is a UN Volunteer and Communications Officer in UNDP Timor-Leste. Prior to UNDP, he worked for several non-governmental organizations in Australia, including World Vision and Oxfam.