Timor Leste: On the road to better informed citizens

04 Apr 2012

imageVice-Minister for Justice Ivo Valente is presented with a traditional Timorese weavings to mark the start of an outreach session in the village of Laclo. (Photo: Gil Danilo/UNDP)

By Christine Kearney

In the lush mountain-top rural town of Maubisse, central Timor Leste, 250 local residents sit patiently listening to government representatives talk about everything from property law to domestic violence, human rights, birth registration and border passes.

With a dominant oral culture, Timorese prefer to receive their information in person, from authorities, or from those they trust. This is especially important in rural settings like Maubisse, where people’s access to news, information and Internet is extremely limited and the best way to explain programmes, policies, laws and services—while listening to residents’ concerns and questions—is meeting with them directly.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) supports such sessions through its partnership with the Ministry of Justice, aiming to disseminate information about the country’s justice sector to the heart  of Timorese communities. The initiative Taking Justice to the People has been running since 2010 and has so far reached out to more than 5,000 people in all 13 districts of Timor-Leste, a country with a population of a slightly more than 1.2 million.

“Without knowledge of rights, laws and government services, people’s ability to access justice is a non-starter,” said Andrew Harrington, UNDP Access to Justice Policy Specialist.

“The first step in being able to access the formal justice system is knowing that it exists and having some familiarity with how it works, which is exactly why we support these sessions,” he added.

The outreach sessions often end up with government officials and local residents dancing together to traditional Timorese or Portuguese-inspired music as a way to demonstrate goodwill on both parts. 

Celito Cardoso, Director of the Ministry’s National Directorate for Human Rights and Citizenship, said that the sub-district outreach programme also encourages Timorese to think about how they can contribute towards a society in which the rule of law is respected.

“Our target is the strengthening of a democratic, law-abiding Timor-Leste,” he said.

“We hope we can build on the consciousness and the sense of responsibility of each citizen, about how to live in this country... and so that they know the civic rights and duties.”

“It’s great that the Ministry of Justice and their team have come to our town and been able to provide a lot of useful information,” said Filomeno de Araújo, 55, a Maubisse civil servant who said the outreach session was “fantastic”.

Also at the Maubisse session was Isabel Salsinha, 17, from a local senior high school. Unlike teenagers in other parts of the world, she doesn’t use Facebook because she doesn’t have Internet at home. Private internet access is too expensive for most rural Timorese. But she says the outreach session was positive and taught her a great deal.

“We learnt about human rights and about laws.... this is our land, our nation and as Timorese, it’s important that we have this information,” Salsinha said.